As war raged around the Syrian city of Aleppo, a story spread across the globe. An estimated 40,000 innocent civilians held on to their loved ones and left their homes to escape the war-torn country, but there was one glimmer of hope amidst the dust and bloodshed. It was about a man who stayed behind. His name is Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, and he stayed in the all-but-deserted city because he had a purpose.
The people of Aleppo weren’t the only ones caught in the middle of the country’s civil war. Hundreds of cats were left abandoned in the streets as their owners were forced to leave their pets behind.
Aljaleel, known as Alaa, gave them a new home. His cat sanctuary, named The House of Cats Ernesto, started with around 20 animals. But as people got word of his life-saving efforts, the population quickly grew. Refugees started dropping off their pets, and Alaa was soon caring for over one hundred former pets and street cats.
He continued to feed and shelter his four-legged residents as his country sank deeper into despair. The fighting that started in 2012 was getting worse and closer to home. Then one dark day in November, Russian bombs aimed at Aleppo rained down on the sanctuary. Everything was destroyed as the ground shook and the building that made up one of the last safe havens in Aleppo crumbled to the ground.
Alessandra Abidin, the woman who runs the private Facebook Group, II Gattaro d’Aleppo (the cat man of Aleppo,) posted,
“I’m so sorry to tell you that today our shelter was bomb[ed]. Some cats and our beautiful dog Hope is dead.”
With his cat Ernesto in tow, Alaa had no choice but to flee to Turkey. He made it out of his country alive, but he knew his work in Syria wasn’t done. Shortly after arriving to relative safety, he started to plan his return.
With supporters all over the world, he soon made his way back home.
The former sanctuary was nothing but rubble, and he estimated only 10 cats survived the bombing. But he found a new site and started to rebuild his sanctuary. He had Ernesto, a new cat named Feras, and a new dog named Hope to help him.
The new sanctuary is called Ernesto Paradise, and Alaa is busy filling it with life and laughter. A birthday party was hosted at the site last week, and more cats arrive every day. In a particularly heartwarming reunion, a cat from the old sanctuary, Honey, found her way across the city to Alaa. Abidin wrote on Facebook,
“One of our cats in the ex-House of Cats Ernesto in Aleppo was recovered today. My joy is immense. Welcome back, Honey.”
It’s Alaa’s hope that there will soon be no need for a cat sanctuary in Aleppo, but until that time, he’ll be there to protect the pets that are left behind.
You can keep up with Alaa and the new cat sanctuary on Facebook.