What started as feeding a couple of dozen cats in the streets soon escalated when word spread amongst the feline population of Aleppo that there were regular deliveries of food on certain street corners. Alaas dream started there. His first plan was to have a cat refuge for stray cats where he could feed and care for the many strays.
Aleppo was of course full of the media and press from various countries, recording the war and its atrocities, and Alaa started to be noticed by the media and was given some coverage on news programmes in different countries.
His dream began to come true at the end of 2015 when Alessandra Abidin entered his life. Alessandra had seen his story in the Aljazeera newspaper and decided to contact him to see if she could help him. As a fluent speaker of Arabic, Alessandra could speak to Alaa in his own language.
Alessandra created a Facebook page and formed a Facebook group called Il Gattaro d’Aleppo – the catman of Aleppo - and on that group page she posted photographs of Alaa and the cats and the total devastation that was happening in Aleppo city and appealed for donations – and soon Alaa was able to converse with people at the other side of the world. The popularity of the page soon spread and a small Facebook group which began with Alessandra and Alaa and a couple of dozen people became what it is today. A worldwide group of almost 25 thousand people.
With generous donations from the small group that was active in the early days, Alaa secured a piece of land at the side of his house. Half of it he converted into a shelter for the cats where they came to be fed.
The House of Cats Ernesto was born. It was named after a very loved pet cat of Alessandras who had recently died.
The sanctuary was now feeding approximately 100 cats. They were free to come and go but most became resident with the others calling in at feeding times.
The small plot of land next to the sanctuary became the scene of a lot of work. The group caught glimpses of the activity through the trees and fencing of the sanctuary, but no one had any idea what was being created.
A playground for children, with swings, carousels, slides and climbing frames was built. The local children were invited to the opening. These children had lived under war and daily bombing for years and Alaa saw this as an opportunity to bring joy back into their lives.
The more domesticated of the cats were given a collar so that the children could approach them without fear of being scratched. The children were invited in small groups into the sanctuary. The children and the cats were very appreciative, and Pet Therapy was born. The playground was christened the Garden of Amal (Hope).
Things became very bad in Aleppo in 2016 when it seemed like all the world was bombing Aleppo. Conditions deteriorated throughout the city. Power cuts, water shortages and internet outages became the norm. Buildings were destroyed at the rate of scores each day. The main road into Aleppo and the only route to bring in supplies was closed, and snipers fired on anyone trying to get in or out of the city. The city was under siege conditions. Alaa continued his work with Syria charity as an ambulance driver and first responder throughout the horrendous bombardment of Aleppo. His ambulance was blown up 5 times and each time the group replaced it
By storing food before the siege, the group made sure there was a constant supply of food for the animals which enabled them to be fed. More than 170 cats (domestic and feral) were now resident. Cats were saved from the streets after bombings and their wounds attended to and food was offered.
By this time the water works in Aleppo had been bombed. With funding from the Il Gattaro group a well was dug which supplied local residents and the animals of Ernesto’s with fresh water. Using his skills as an electrician, and with financial support from the group, Alaa built and maintained some generators so the children had light and could attend school in some of the buildings still standing. But the situation grew worse. Food became scarce and shelling and bombing increased. The group funded the distribution of food to the neighbourhood.
Food prices rose to unprecedented levels. Despite this, the group managed to keep feeding the cats. For weeks, the cats survived on mortadella sausage and rice and any other scraps that Alaa could find.
Then came the darkest day. Shortly before the evacuation of Aleppo the sanctuary was bombed and lots of our cats were hit by shrapnel and killed. Our lovely dog Hope was also killed in the bombing. Alaa realised that the sanctuary was under great threat and he gathered up as many cats and animals as he could and transported them to a safer place on the outskirts of Aleppo.
Then phosphorus gas bombs were dropped and lots of our cats were killed instantly.
The government troops now occupied most of Aleppo and fighting was fierce. The whole civilian population were ordered to leave the city or be killed. Alaa made a video recording which Alessandra posted on the group page. In it he said goodbye to the group members. He apologised for letting them down. He said that he may not be alive for much longer. The group members were devastated. There was nothing that could be done to help him.
Alaa distributed the cats that were still alive between various friends and asked them to look after them.
The next day Alaa was ordered to load his ambulance with the sick, the disabled and the elderly, and with Ernesto his own cat asleep on the dashboard, they joined the convoy of vehicles and left his home for ever. He transported his ambulance full of humanity to the refugee camps on the Syrian Turkish border and within hours he was back at work handing out food and aid to the refugees still arriving. They kept arriving for days.
Since then, with support from this amazing group of incredible and generous people, a property was found in a rural area of Aleppo
Work began on the new land, and a new animal sanctuary, Ernestos Paradise, was founded.
Now Ernestos sanctuary is full of life and we have over 200 cats in residence, and others that call in for meals. We now also have 4 monkeys, a horse, doves, rabbits and dogs. The group members also donated money to buy a plot of land near the sanctuary and another childrens playground called the Garden of Hope is now established.
Caring for all these animals of course really required the services of a veterinarian. It took a long time to find one, (most of them left Syria at the beginning of the civil war) but Dr Mohammad Youssef joined us at the new sanctuary just over a year ago. We have been able to equip and open a veterinary clinic, where the local population can bring their domestic pets for treatment. We now offer free support and veterinary care for animals owned by residents of the local Idlib and Aleppo areas. Many people in Syria have pet animals, and livestock - but they often don’t have the funds or the knowledge to care for them properly. The availability of free medical care, education on animal welfare and of the benefits of spaying and neutering will vastly improve the lives of these animals.
A year ago the Il Gattaro d'Aleppo group were instrumental in the rescue of several animals from the ruins of Aleppo zoo and gained international recognition for this work. Most of the animals in the zoo had died from disease, or war injuries or starvation. When Alaa found them ònly a few animals were left alive and they were in a terrible condition.
Dr Youssef cared for these survivors and with food and care they were eventually strong enough to be transported to the Syrian Turkish border. Dr Youssef travelled with them and handed the animals over to an international animal rescue group.
The animals were flown out of Syria to reserves in different countries. 2 tigers, lions, bears, hyenas and 2 dogs were saved due to the actions of our small Syrian sanctuary
Dr Youssef now has a veterinary assistant, Abu Ali, and both work full time at Ernestos. Ernestos team visit local farms and stables, improving animal husbandry and welfare. Because of the war we still struggle to find and buy enough anaesthetic, vaccines and medicines.
With financial assistance from our group, Alaa works to help the child refugees and orphans and Pet Therapy sessions rake place on a regular basis.
The war is still never far away from our sanctuary and Syria is still a country in violent turmoil, but we will carry on with our mission of improving the lives of so many forgotten victims of the war - the animals - and to improve the future for animals in Syria. With perseverance and with the support of our group – we aim to succeed.