Aleppo resident operates cat sanctuary in besieged city

As thousands of people are fleeing from eastern Aleppo to avoid the fighting many leave their pet cats. Aleppo resident, Mohammed Aljaleel noticed that the number of cats without owners was increasing.

Aljaleel was an electrical maintenance worker before the civil war reached Aleppo in 2012. Aljaleel who has always loved cats built a small garden for them. His sanctuary began with just a small area cordoned off to protect the cats from stray dogs in which he fed the animals. Aljaleel said: “I started with 15 cats in the house, but gradually I have ended up with more than 150 cats from all over the city. And every day I have new additions join us in the house — some of them just come to eat and then they spend the night elsewhere.” Many people when they are leaving Aleppo take their cats to the sanctuary knowing that Aljaleel will take care of them.
Aljaleel tells a touching story of one cat that was brought to him:“One time a little girl brought me a cat. Her parents wanted to go abroad. So they came here — they knew there was a cat sanctuary here. The girl had brought the cat up since she was a kitten,” he said. “She cried as she handed her over to me and they left the country. I’ve been taking photos of the cat and sending them to her in Turkey. She begs me, ‘Send me photos of her. I miss her. Please promise to return my cat back to me when we come back.’ ”

The sanctuary has survived even during the bombing campaign by Russia and the Syrian government and in spite of the fact that food, medicine and fuel are increasingly scarce. Thanks to donations from around the world Alajeel decided that he would help out Aleppo's children as well and has also set up a playground for children in addition to the cat sanctuary. Al Jaleel said: “It was enough money to expand and improve the cat house, I added trees to the garden outside, and swings and seesaws. Now, children from around the neighbourhood, and other districts as well, come and play in the park and in the cat house."
A donation drive was spearheaded by Alessandra Abidin, an Lebanese-Italiam. She said that her cat Ernesto had died last year and she donated to Aljaleel's project in his memory. She then helped him out with the difficulties of collecting money and getting it to Syria. She said: “.. because of language barriers and sending money to Syria there were a lot of problems." There are now around 70 people worldwide who donate to the project. from Europe, the United States and even South America.
Three years ago, Aljaleel was still able to purchase offcuts from butchers for around $5 a day but at present, meat is a rare luxury even for humans. He now feeds the cats what his family eats rice mixed with canned Mortadella (Italian luncheon meat). At first, the cats would not eat it but after a few days they were hungry enough to start eating it and seem to enjoy it now. Even so, Aljaleel is still able only to provide the cats with one meal a day.
Donations have been so generous that Aljaleel has been able to accumulate three months worth of food supplies and has been using suprlus funds to help others. Aljaleel said: “We help mostly orphans and widows who don’t have any way to find their daily food.” He has used some funds to dig wells and buy two vans for his work as a voluntary medic.
On call for 24 hours a day, Aljaleel transports the dead and injured to the nearest medical facility. Aljaleel said:“This is taking up a lot of my days now, as the bombardment has been so brutal. I have to go anytime, whenever I get a call saying there has been a bomb, I just go. So, all of the donations go to humanitarian work, whether it goes to the cat house or whether it is helping transfer people to the closest medical facility.”
Aljaleel wants to make his sanctuary larger and share his experience with people in other countries. He hopes some day to have an entire park in Aleppo dedicated to the city's cat where people can have their children come and play with the cats. Aljaleel, unlike many others, has no desire to leave Aleppo in spite of all the destruction. He says: “I don't want to leave the city or migrate from my country as many of my friends have done. I want to stay here with my struggling neighbours, and help them, and the cats.” He also said: ‘Someone who has mercy in their heart for humans has mercy for every living thing.’


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