Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel was an ambulance driver and paramedic, living in eastern Aleppo in 2013, when war was all around them and the scare of bombs drove civilians out of the area, and the cats in. Aljaleel described his mission to NBC News as an aim to protect, feed and keep his felines safe and healthy.
When people began fleeing the area, many cats were left behind. The owners had no way of taking them with them, and the cats slowly began migrating to his area, which he knows was partly due to them knowing that he was already feeding and taking care of some. Over time, the number of cats grew from just six, to more than 170 of them. By the time he was 42 years old, in 2015, Aljaleel built a cat sanctuary to care for them all, “Ernesto’s House,” which he named after his very first cat.
During this time, under the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, Aljaleel was recognized as a peaceful symbol in a world of war and devastation. He stood for resilience and kindness amidst chaos and destruction, and was lovingly referred to as the “Cat Man of Aleppo.” Aside taking care of the many cats, Aljaleel also provided for the local children by way of creating a playground for them. He wanted a sanctuary where cats and children could be together. He added swings and other games for the kids and schools. Aljaleel was quoted saying, “It was a really wonderful job. All the schools and the children used to come and visit the sanctuary. They would see the huge amount of cats that were left behind by their owners.”
Before long, more families that were fleeing for safety from the city started bringing their cats and dropping them off. Aljaleel also took care of stray dogs as he could. He fed them and provided basic veterinary care for them. He wouldn’t bring them to live with the cats, but he wanted to help them out as well.
The aid he gave so many, finally came to an end at Ernesto’s House one day after a bomb struck the area in November and leveled his home, turning it to rubble. The blast killed most of the cats and he was forced to flee the city as well, taking the handful of survivors with him. It was a perilous journey to the country that took 15 days, but when he finally made it, he began to rebuild, and his amazing story began to leak out and attract followers from across the globe, all thanks to media outlets and his Facebook page.
In an effort to help, some people donated money outright, while others organized fundraisers in the US as well as in Spain. Despite his good deeds and his desire to help the animals, his work began to put a strain on his personal life. His wife separated from him and moved to Turkey with their two children. He has said that he tries to visit them as often as he can and he hopes that his children will understand one day, what it was that he was trying to do. His hope is that the world will repay them with kindness and mercy. the same that he’s given to these less fortunate animals and humans that are in need.
At his new home, now outside Aleppo, he has 25 cats and will continue taking in new ones, whoever needs a place to live. To the people, it’s more than just a cat sanctuary. It is a place that “seeks to erase the war from children’s minds. Caring for the cats is a gateway to bringing good will to the country and build it around being more merciful.”