A Scoop of Hope: In the Midst of War, a Syrian Shelter Offers Refuge to 1,000 Stranded Cats
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war. It’s the adults who so often behave badly.” These were the words of Mohammed Aljaleel, or as he is known in the international community, “The Aleppo Cat Man.” Before the onset of the Syrian Civil War, Aljaleel worked as an electrician in East Aleppo. Neither is he a political activist, nor a member of any of the rivaling groups, but his story is one of hope and sacrifice. This is how Mohammed Aljaleel began House of Cats Ernesto.
In 2012, working as an ambulance driver, Aljaleel started feeding dozens of strays on the streets; as the situation worsened in Aleppo, he became the main provider for hundreds of felines. He dreamed of establishing his own cat refuge and three years later, as international media outlets picked up on his stories, Alessandra Abidin got in touch with him, and with her involvement, he came closer to achieving his dream. Together, the two created the Facebook group ‘Il Gattaro d’Aleppo,’ which is Spanish for his nickname, The Aleppo Cat Man.
Abidin posted about Aljaleel and his cats, and soon enough, donations started pouring in from all over Europe. In time, he managed to buy a piece of land next to his house, and established his own permanent shelter for the hundreds of strays that depend on him, housing over 1,000 cats.
House of Cats Ernesto was more than a shelter; it was a groundbreaking social space that offered war-torn children a chance to relive their childhood through pet therapy. Kids from all over the area were invited to come to the farm and play with the cats. The place was a glimpse of light in a very dark cave.
A year later, however, the bombings of Aleppo reduced the shelter to ruins. Some of the cats died as a result of the blasts and the shrapnel, whilst others were poisoned instantly when the phosphorus bombs were dropped. Aljaleel rescued a handful of survivors and left Aleppo. He posted a video on the FB group, wherein he apologized for letting everyone down and said his goodbyes, for he knew; he may not be alive for much longer. Everyone was saddened. There was nothing that they could do to help at this point.
Despite all the devastation and loss, this story has a good ending. The Cat Man of Aleppo survived, and through his efforts and donations from the group, work began on a new piece of land in a rural area in Aleppo, and out of the ruins came a new animal shelter, ‘Ernestos Paradise.’
Today the new shelter accommodates 200 stranded cats, and is equipped with a veterinary clinic, and a full-time vet, along with an assistant. It is also worth mentioning that the pet therapy sessions are back on schedule, and that Aljaleel is still doing his absolute best in caring for these helpless victims of war, may they be feline or human.