In 2011, a peaceful movement to bring democratic reforms to the government of Syria sprung to life. Five years later, this peaceful movement has become a full-scale civil war with a death toll of more than 300,000 Syrians, including in excess of 86,000 civilians, and a mass exodus of 11 million. In the panic to leave, taking along the family pet is out of the question, although many do try, risking personal safety and investing quite a bit of money. The pets left behind suddenly find themselves ownerless and homeless.
Into this abyss of animal suffering has come Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel who, along with his family, chose to stay behind in Aleppo to become the unofficial caretaker of the city’s cats. Every day, Aljaleel goes to the local butcher who sells him meat scraps for the 150 cats he is feeding. Aljaleel, who is an electrician, could have taken his family to safety in Turkey shortly after the violence began in 2011, but instead they chose to stay behind and help those unable to escape.
Aljaleel’s work began when he noticed a few stray cats hanging around the site of a recent airstrike. Not only is Aljaleel keeping the cats alive, many of which he has named, but children come to visit and play with them, providing a small escape into normalcy. To those who say he should be spending his time taking care of humans, relief organizations point out that these pets are precious to their owners. Proof of how attached Syrians are to their pets is the many stories of those who have walked more than 300 miles to escape along with their dogs or have taken leaky rafts to Greece carrying their kittens. By taking care of the cats left behind, Aljaleel is ensuring the future joy owners will feel when they are reunited with their pets.
Aljaleel knows that he is taking a very big risk by staying, nevertheless, he dreams of opening a shelter and animal hospital one day and in the meantime, he and his family continue their mission of caring for the beloved cats left behind in Syria’s chaos.