From Syria With Love
interview with The Cat Man Of Aleppo. Mohammed Alaa al-Jaleel
‘Inside us lies every possibility that is available to a sentient being. Every darkness, every light. It is the choices we make that decide who or what we will be.’
One man’s quest to help our feline friends during the most challenging of circumstances left me brimming with admiration and a renewed hope for humanity towards the sentient beings we share this planet with. His name is Mohammed Alaa al-Jaleel, or as he is now known, The Cat Man of Aleppo.
Mohammed Alaa stayed behind to help the local feral and pet cat population in the middle of a fierce civil war, setting up a sanctuary in Aleppo with the help of Il Gattaro Di Aleppo Organisation (1), a Facebook page set up by Alessandra Abidin in November 2015. Mohammed Alaa’s work became famous all over the world.
His journey with cats is one few would be brave enough to make.
What’s your first memory of cats? Did you have them in your home as a child and do you remember how they made you feel?
We used to visit my grandparents, who had a cat called Bailasan. Every time she had kittens, the rest of our family – 22 uncles and nine aunties – used to reserve one kitten in advance. When it was our turn to take a kitten, my sister, Nailaa, and I were extremely excited. We named our kitten Loulou. It was white with blue eyes just like Bailasan. I was five years old and she was my biggest joy. We did not have a television as it was rare for a Syrian family to have one, but we were happy as we had a kitten.
My sister and I would fight over who would feed, bath and spend time with Loulou, but I felt like Loulou loved my sister more and I started to feel jealous. To solve the problem, my father decided to bring home another cat; a feral one from his work place. Of course, the two cats did not get along, and to sort out the problem, my father assigned us a task. My sister would clean the new feral cat and I would feed her. This lasted for three years and my sister managed to win the cat’s love over me as she normally did.
We had Loulou for seven years, until one day she became ill and disappeared. We felt so sad. I waited for her at the door to come back every day for 15 days. My father tried to comfort us, saying that when a cat falls ill it goes away to die so that the humans who love her don’t feel sad.
Three months later I was walking to the ice cream shop when I found a small kitten at the gate of one of the buildings next door. I asked the ice cream man if the kitten belonged to anyone. When he said no, I spoke to my father and we went back together to take the five-month-old kitten home. After we gave her some meat, she felt secure and jumped into my father’s lap. We named her Jongar, after a cartoon we used to watch, and she became a big part of our lives.
Before we had our own cats we always looked after the street cats. My father always taught his children to feed them as they didn’t have owners to feed and care for them. He also said the cats couldn’t express their feelings or tell us they were hungry and that we should be the ones who take the initiative. That was the family’s approach with us children, I guess to make us feel responsible.
What was your life like before the cat sanctuary?
At 21, when I had completed military service, I started to work with an electric engineer during the summer, and four years later opened my own shop. Wherever I went on a job I carried luncheon meat to feed any street cats I saw. Carrying the meat felt as essential as my house key. I wanted to be a role model and wanted people to see this. I like helping, regardless of whether it’s helping an animal or a human. At the time I was caring for three cats called Zeer, Antar and Aflatoun in my shop, as well as the nearby stray cats.
I got married at the age of 25. It was vital that my wife liked cats and would tolerate them in our house. Luckily she did and our first cat was called Alia. I was still working as an electrician, computer programmer and satellite repair engineer when, in 2011, the Syrian civil war broke out. In 2012, my wife and two children, Maram, 12, and Abdouljaleek, 11, fled the country to Istanbul, Turkey, but I stayed in Aleppo. There were not enough ambulances, since most of them were owned by the Syrian regime, so I started working as an ambulance driver, using my own car to take patients for medical treatment.
When did the idea of the sanctuary come into your head and how did you make it happen?
A British journalist was writing a report about the White Helmets (2) and heard about how I was looking after the cats. He decided to do a report on me too. That was the first time in my life that someone wanted to write about me. The article was for the Telegraph and it was about how an ambulance man was rescuing people alongside looking after cats.
People around the world read the article and wanted to know more. They were asking the journalists and media people in Aleppo, so I created a Facebook page, and in no time at all it was published on numerous news websites like Smart News and Aleppo News. People were asking me to post about my rescues on a daily basis so they could follow what I was doing.
In the first three days I received 2,500 friend requests, the vast majority of whom were cat lovers and sympathetic about the Syrian crisis. There were diplomats, supermodels, astronauts, artists, and even a member of the Italian Parliament.
Eventually, the Facebook supporters asked me to establish a cat sanctuary, including my good friend Alessandra Abidin. The idea of the sanctuary grew from this seed. After much support from many people, I started to collect the stray cats and managed to secure a house that was previously lived in by a family who fled the war. I adapted the house to make it suitable for cats and started to search for strays that looked in need of help. My Facebook friends helped me with funding for the cats’ food and medical supplies. I did encounter some hardship with some of the cats that were once domestic pets, as they kept trying to return to their empty houses, looking for owners who fled the war. Cats often tend to return to where they used to live, but the stray cats stayed. The Il Gattaro Di Aleppo bought a power generator for €3000, which wasn’t only used to process the cats’ meat, but also helped out the neighbourhood.
Can you describe your neighbourhood to us? How badly was it affected by the war?
Following the crisis and in 2012 and 2013, I lived in an area called Hanano. It was a residential area which contained more than 30,0000 people. The area was lively, busy, peaceful and full of life. It became the destination for lots of people during the war until its population grew to 600,000 people. People came to this area fleeing the severe bombing from the suburbs and from the heart of the city. Following the bombing, life became difficult. During this time, I was looking after the cats, and my supporters asked me to establish the shelter as it was relatively the safest area and was full of parks. The sanctuary was an abandoned park full of rubbish, which I managed to fix and refurbish so that it would be a nice place to look after the cats and to attract the local children. It took us about 3 months to establish the sanctuary and the play area. In 2016 however, Hanano was subject to severe bombing. The cat sanctuary was completely destroyed: the fence, the trees, the walls and even the ambulance car. Most people fled.
Were the cats already a feral colony in the space made into the cat sanctuary or did they gravitate there? I understand people fleeing the war were giving you their pets also?
Once I started to feed the stray cats, many others started to gravitate to the feeding area. I also started to rescue stray cats from different remote areas since they would not have been aware of my sanctuary. When people found out about the cat sanctuary, many of them brought their pets for me to look after. Others reported abandoned cats that needed help. I would go to the area and call them, or sound my car horn. They became familiar with that and would come out towards me and around my car.
How did the sanctuary run on a daily basis in terms of food and medical resources?
The first original cat sanctuary in Aleppo was bombed by chemical weapons and about 30 cats died, so we had to set up another one. We chose a suburban area and it was much more organised, with funding from Il Gattaro Di Aleppo and various artists in Spain and the USA. They painted me and sold the pictures, with proceeds going to the sanctuary. To get food for the cats I would go to the Turkish-Syrian border to buy meat from the traders. Money from the fund secured the cats’ food for about a month in advance. I was in charge of feeding the cats with help from two other people while the local vet took care of the cats’ medical needs.
How did your family feel about the cat sanctuary and your decision to remain in such a dangerous situation?
My wife did not appreciate my choice. She asked me to leave with her and told me that if I decided to stay we must separate, which we did three years ago. My children knew how much I loved cats and how keen I was to care for and help them. My family left the border with great difficulty under incessant bombing. I did not want them to leave and they were concerned about me in such a dangerous place.
Are you in touch with them now?
I struggled for the first three months after my family left, and I felt very lonely. My heart remained with them. However, my work here is making up for this loneliness. The fact that I am helping these helpless and powerless creatures, and the many homeless human families, orphans, and children; all that makes me less lonely. If they knew the extent of my work, I am sure that my family would be proud of what I am doing and they would understand. I am still in touch with them, but sadly not much.
Have you ever been criticised for staying with the cats rather than leaving with your family?
Of course there were people, mainly relatives, who have been judgmental and critical of me for leaving my family, saying that I could have gone with them. But equally, there are many people who are supporting and encouraging what I am doing. I am sure those criticising me know deep inside that I am doing the right thing. I am certain the right thing for me is to stay here to help people and the cats that I adore. It means a lot to me when I see the look in the cats’ eyes, waiting for me in anticipation of their food.
Your sanctuary was a ray of hope at such a dark time in Syria and I have read that many children came to visit the cats.
Why are cats so important to people, and does this have anything to do with the respect for cats that Islamic culture teaches?
The cat sanctuary became a shelter for the children seeking what they have lost. They gather, play and laugh in this place. In this sanctuary my aim was to teach the children how to love the animals and look after them. I believe that if you want to teach a value to someone, you should start at a young age. I wanted to teach them how to look after these animals and not to harm them and how to have responsibility. Also, I felt that this sanctuary could be a place for the children; to help them forget all their pain and anguish. The children’s parents were very happy about this idea and they have noticed the difference in their children’s attitude.
Islam, similar to many other religions, strongly advises that we should take care of animals, look after them and feed them. Islam strictly prohibits humans from harming animals and asks that we do not let any ill animals suffer and that we need to put them to sleep if there is no hope of recovery. Also, my family has always believed that cats bring good luck to their people.
Do you care for any other animals besides cats?
I am ready to help all animals in need and have rescued several monkeys who were kept in a birdcage. I offered their owner money to buy them and he agreed to give them to me. The monkeys were in critical condition and about to die. In my attempt to rescue them, one of the monkeys got scared and bit two of my fingers. I have been struggling with the injury for eight months and meanwhile received some funds from my friends to help build a proper cage for the monkeys.
I once heard about some animals in an entertainment park called Magic World that were about to die. There were four lions, three tigers, three jaguars, two dogs and an Asian bear. Initially I said I couldn’t help as it would take a big budget to feed them and to keep them in the right environment. I was also a bit scared to go into the area, as the extremist group Al-Nusra Front made it extremely dangerous to approach.
However, I eventually went to visit the animals, and two months later met the person in charge of the park. I did what I could; I told my supporters and they launched a rescue campaign.
The Four Paws organisation rescued the animals, (3) although other animals at the zoo like the deer, monkeys and the female pregnant bear sadly died due to the bombing and hunger.
How do you juggle fears for your own safety alongside your need to care for and nurture the cats?
One of the difficulties that I encountered as an ambulance man was trying to help people when the areas were being bombed and it was too dangerous to attend. As for the cats, the difficulty was in the shortage of food, medication and vets to provide them with medical care. Many times I had to delay helping them due to the shortage of medical supplies, and I wasn’t always able to save them.
One of the other difficulties was the shortage of food. I used to collect leftover meat from the butchers’ shop to feed 17 cats. Because of the siege on the area, it was hard to secure food for me, my family and the rest of the people around me. I told my 25,000 online supporters and they suggested a food campaign. Within a week we managed to collect £18,000 towards helping animals and people. I made a list of basic supplies like rice, oil, luncheon meat, and sardines for the cats. Part of it was paid for in cash and the rest I borrowed until the funds were transferred. My supporters were really fearful after the siege. What happened in Ghouta (4) regarding food supplies was looking like it was going to happen over here so we arranged to buy the food from several traders who were monopolizing food. The price of food was going up due to the monopolization so my supporters asked me to buy and secure food from the traders until the fund arrived.
Can you describe the original cat sanctuary that was bombed? Did you actually sleep on site, nearby or travel to visit everyday?
The sanctuary was located on a piece of land full of stuff people that people dumped. I managed to clean it up and planted some trees. I also built a play area for the children and as I was living next door, I visited every day. Often, the cats would come and visit me at home, so I was with them on a daily basis; day and night.
Could you stroke the cats or were they feral and unapproachable?
This depended on whether they were strays or had previously lived as indoor pets. There were cats that were approachable, and I was capable of getting close to them whilst others were wild. They would only come over at meal times when I would stand away to let them approach. It was the pet cats that that I managed to gain the most trust with. I found no difficulty dealing with them.
Were there any special cats that you became really attached to?
There was a young cat called Teresa. She came to the sanctuary all by herself and was very beautiful with long fur. During mating time I used to bring her all of the kittens so that she could feed them; there were fifteen in all. I called her Teresa after the Catholic nun, Mother Teresa, who looked after poor and unfortunate people. The feline Teresa used to sleep in the sanctuary office next to me. People would visit to watch her feeding other cats’ kittens.
What was given to the cats for food as time went on and things became more and more difficult?
When I was feeding the cats from my own pocket, I used to buy leftover meat, as that is all I could afford at the time. After receiving funds from my supporters, I started to get them poultry meat and instead of one feed every day, they would get two or three. We had 170 cats at this time, but due to the war we were short of human doctors, never mind vets.
The original cat sanctuary was bombed in 2016 and things became impossible to manage. What was it like?
On 16th October 2016, a fierce raid hit Aleppo. The area where the sanctuary was located suffered the worst of the bombing. We could not move around freely to save people and encountered difficulty securing food. After five days of continuous bombing, the sanctuary was completely gone. The sanctuary dog, Amal, which means hope, was killed, along with a large number of cats. My friends advised that I should move the rest of the surviving cats somewhere safe. I started to collect them and gradually moved them to a storage space beneath a building where it was safe away from the bombing, which had terrified most of the cats and made them run away.
You’ve started a new sanctuary in a different area. How did you pick yourself up to start again?
I started to evacuate people from the area when the fire from the bombing ceased. I also started to collect the cats and asked departing families moving out of Aleppo to the suburbs to take one or two with them.
On 16 November, 2016, I too left Aleppo for the suburbs and in December met my supporters in Kilis, a city in south-Central Turkey near to the Syrian border. It was very overwhelming and emotional. One of them said they did not expect to see me after what I’d been through. I was encouraged to travel to a European country, but I refused. They didn’t expect that. I refused to travel and told them I would like to start all over again.
In the end we agreed to establish five projects: a sanctuary to save animals, a children’s play park, a center for the disabled and an orphanage, plus a clinic for animals and people. So far we have managed to get four out of the five projects off the ground. We have done the animal sanctuary, a hospital for both humans and animals, a center for the disabled called Amal, and the children’s play park. As for the orphanage, we’ve started on the building but this has been stopped due to the funds coming into Syria being suspended.
When I decided to return, people supported me very generously to achieve my goal. The financial support reached 20,000 euros within one year. With this amount we were aiming to expand our support circle to help as many people and animals as we could. The funds were to support many poor families, schools and more. However, I would like to add that, as of 2018, this amount has not been released from the bank accounts. Some charity organisations used to assist me in transferring the charity funds that I received through them and they used to charge me 15% of the amount for doing this. They also wanted me to use their logos by wearing their t-shirts (so that they gain all of the credit). When I refused to wear their logos they stopped helping me with the fund transfer. The reason why we were transferring the donated money through certain charity organisations was because the funds needed to be transferred via registered and authorised organisations to prove that they were not for terrorism purposes.
Did any of your cats suffer trauma from the war?
The cats’ behaviour changed when the bombing started to get bad. They were terrified and ran away and those that returned were not approachable anymore. They had lost confidence in humans. The cats started to sense when there was going to be a raid or a bombing and started to act differently. I saw how they would anticipate the hazard before it happened, such as running away before it all started, and missing their meal times.
The cats that I used to bring from the destroyed areas struggled a lot. They were too terrorized and it was difficult to gain their trust again, which could take weeks. I think somehow they knew that what was happening was a result of man.
What would you like the world to know about you, the cats, and the war in Syria?
War does not distinguish between strong and weak, elderly or child, animal or human. I know that war is brutal. It financially and spiritually drains everyone, but especially the poor. The poorest and less fortunate are the biggest losers in war because they cannot afford to flee it. The people who are richer manage to escape as they can afford the travel expenses.
I believe that when man is merciful toward the poor and less fortunate, God will stand beside him. Although I faced certain death on many occasions, God saved me each time. Despite all the difficulties I have continued with what I started. With each setback I am more determined to go until the end. War is the worst thing that could happen to humanity. Before this, I never imagined that the impact of war could be so dramatic. I believe that if we have to be merciful towards each other, we have to be the same towards everything around us. People used to judge me and blame me for trying to save the cats rather than people. I always told them that cats are also living creatures, just like us, and we have to help them.
Cats can bring good luck, as the tales say. I want people who have a good heart, like I feel I have, to know that as a result of my work with cats, I got to know remarkable people all around the world: the people who supported me.
As a result of my passion for cats I achieved many things that the government could not do during this critical time. People started to follow my lead. For the first time, the government has issued a directive to establish similar sanctuaries.
What does the future hold for you?
I am aiming to build a hospital for animals and humans. I would like to save all sorts of animals, not only cats, and I would like people to help and support me with this.
I would like to spread love and compassion rather than hate and resentment. I want people to help me build things up rather that destroy them. I want people to help humanity by adopting a noble cause and trying to achieve it – despite all odds.
My hope was to build a Child Academy, which was going to be launched in August 2018. The philosophy behind this project is to provide everything for the child, which will help to promote their skills and talent and establish a healthy generation of children that can reach their full potential.
Mohammed is a simple man who possess the type of wealth that money can’t buy and wars can’t win. A spiritual wealth that holds true riches. A soul that has love. This alone is priceless; for these souls save the world and all who live in it.
The interview was conducted with the help of the skilled Arabic translator, Rana Hapal, whose help and patience has been invaluable to me. My heartfelt appreciation and thanks.
DONATIONS TO THE SANCTUARY CAN BE MADE HERE: https://ernestosanctuary.org/donation/
The interview-with-the-cat-man-of-aleppo-mohammed-alaa-al-jaleel was originally conducted to be included in a new cat book I wrote last year. However, sadly, it was edited out to help with chapter consistencies. Therefore I am posting the full interview on this website. The interview was conducted before the book below was published.
All photos above with kind permission from Mohammed Alaa al-Jaleel
Cat man of Aleppo References
1/2 The Il Gattaro Di Aleppo (The Cat Man Of Aleppo) Organization is a Facebook page set up by Alessandra Abidin, a violinist and humanitarian activist of Lebanese origin living in Cremona, Italy. The group, with nearly 4,500 members, connects Aljaleel with his supporters around the world – in Italy, New Zealand, Morocco, Poland, South Korea, France, the United States and other nations – and coordinates donations for his work with the animals and people of Aleppo.
2. The White Helmets, officially known as Syria Civil Defence, is a volunteer organisation that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syriaand in Turkey. Formed in 2014 during the Syrian Civil War, the majority of their activity in Syria consists of urban search and rescue in response to bombing, medical evacuation, evacuation of civilians from danger areas, and essential service delivery. As of April 2018, the organisation claims to have saved over 114,000 lives and to have lost the lives of 204 White Helmet volunteers in the
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anita Kelsey holds a first class honours degree in Feline Behaviour and Psychology (work based BA Hons) and runs a vet referral service dedicated strictly to the diagnosis and treatment of behaviour problems in cats. She is also a qualified cat groomer and specialises in grooming aggressive or phobic cats. Anita writes for Your Cat Magazine and is on their experts panel answering readers questions on cat grooming. She also advises on feline behaviour for the CFBA (Canine and Feline Behaviour) magazine as well as being a full member. Anita, a strong advocate of a vegan lifestyle, is based in London but consults all over the UK as well as international requests. She lives with her husband, a music producer, and two Norwegian Forest cats, Kiki and Zaza. Visit http://www.catbehaviourist.com.
Her debut book ‘Claws. Confessions Of A Professional Cat Groomer‘ is published by John Blakes.
You can follow Anita on Twitter : https://twitter.com/catbehaviourist
Instagram handle: cat_behaviourist
SUBSCRIBE TO A MONTHLY NEWSLETTER FULL OF CAT NEWS AND TIPS: