When Millions Fled War, One Man Stayed To Save The Abandoned Cats

Mohammed Alaa Al-Jaleel is one of many Syrians who have been forced out of their homes amid the country's brutal civil war.

But before he fled Aleppo, Mohammed, locally known as Alaa Tabiya, owned a cat sanctuary.

He also worked as a rescuer and first-aid responder with the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) during the waves of intense airstrikes on the city.

Amid the dreadful conditions, he didn't stop nurturing the roughly 100 stray and abandoned cats in his care. Alaa earned a nickname: The Cat Man.

The Cat Man. (Image: Qusay Noor)

But like many Aleppines, Alaa was forced to leave.  He moved to the western suburb of Kafr Naha.

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There, he decided to launch a new sanctuary, starting with 25 cats that were brought from the city.

Many residents left their cats behind, while some other asked The Cat Man to take care of their cats while they fled the country.

Cats being cared for at the sanctuary. (Image: Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats Facebook)

Mohammed is passionate about community service and wants to establish schools and care centres, as the communities around Aleppo’s suburbs lack key humanitarian services. The cat sanctuary, while caring for animals in need, also raises vital funds for the community.

The sanctuary at Kafr Naha is one of a kind.  Most sanctuaries are for endangered animals and for those at greater risk -- but for Mohammed, it was worth it to invest time, money and effort to help stray cats find shelter.

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According to Mohammed, he was introduced to a journalist working for a foreign newspaper. This helped him share his story. A wider audience started to find out about Mohammed’s efforts in helping and feeding stray cats. From here, his sanctuary grew and various individuals helped Mohammed complete and expand his project.

Soon, more and more people started to learn about The Cat Man and his story.

The fame and the interest in the cat sanctuary increased when people started asking the question, 'who is Aleppo’s cat man?'" he said. 

"The media and journalists had a big role as they spread my voice to the outer world and reported on my work.”

Mohammed launched a Facebook page ,“Il gattaro D’aleppo,” which helped friends and journalists gather around the cause. His voice reached the BBC in 2016. Today, the community has increased to several thousand.

"After I got to know several people who helped, they asked me to gather street cats and create a special sanctuary for cats and call it: The House of Ernesto, in memorandum for an Italian cat which died of cancer,” Alaa Tabiya said. 

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The number of cats at the sanctuary reached 200, and it was all possible because of the support provided to The Cat Man.

The sanctuary now houses some 200 cats, along with several dogs and other animals. (Image: Qusay Noor)

Through the sanctuary, Mohammed was also able to fundraise for a water well and a special need school to be established.

The original sanctuary in Aleppo was targeted by several airstrikes. About 40 cats died and an ambulance was destroyed in the neighborhood. In late 2016, citizens were forced out of the eastern side of Aleppo. Mohammed had to give the cats to the families moving to the suburbs. Cats were put in plastic baskets, three cats in each basket.

He later escorted several injured citizens in an ambulance, as everyone was fleeing in the last buses leaving the city. There was a chance for Mohammed to seek refuge abroad, but he decided to stay in Syria.

It was then Mohammed decided to continue his project by launching the new Kafr Naha Sanctuary. There, Mohammed gathered the cats he brought from the city but also brought new cats that were stray in the suburbs.

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The sanctuary was growing and even few dogs joined. Today, every cat has its own small triangular home and a full-time veterinarian is always on duty. The funds from the sanctuary are helping to establish a new medical facility, as well as the special needs school. Alaa also buys gifts and takes the community kids on recreational trips.

A veterinarian is always on site. (Image: Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats Facebook)
Each cat has their own cat box. (Image: Qusay Noor)

Il gattaro D’aleppo is succeeding due to the support of its friends internationally. In the cat community, there is no tolerance for political, discriminatory or hate speech as they are all united for the love of cats and Syria. Inspired by the Cat Man, friends of Il gattaro D’aleppo were moved by the cause of helping everyone in need.

Mohammad Alaa Al Jaleel won the community's best person award in 2016 and became well-known on social media. Several artists have included the Cat Man in their works, and the profits from selling their art continues to support the sanctuary.

Mohammad has been able to fundraise for other community projects through the cat sanctuary. (Image: Qusay Noor)

In a country ravaged by war, the Cat Man sets an example of love and commitment, with the first project of its kind in Syria.

Translated by Noman Ahmed Ashraf.