Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, an ambulance driver from Aleppo, has been helping the disabled people and seniors people of Aleppo since the civil war broke out. He also initiated a campaign and built a shelter for the pets left behind by the Syrians. Lebanese violinist Alessandra Abidin, currently living in Italy, has been helping Alaa to spread the word about the campaign through a Facebook group and gathering donations. Alaa and Alessandra told Kronos the story of their collaboration and their efforts to help all the innocent people and animals in the middle of a civil war.
FROM AMBULANCE DRIVER TO “THE CAT MAN OF ALEPPO”
I asked him since when he was trying to help needy people and animals in Aleppo. “Since I was a child my passion has been caring for animals, especially cats, that are the innocent victims of war,” said Alaa. He added that he also had a special place in his heart for all children. In 2012, Alaa began feeding abandoned and stray cats in the streets of East Aleppo using the money he earned as an ambulance driver. Alaa‘s dream was to have a cat refuge for stray cats. He realized that dream in November 2015 with the help of the Facebook group, Il Gattaro D’Aleppo, initiated by Alessandra Abidin.
Alaa told us that earlier this year, with great joy, he opened his new cat sanctuary, “Paradise of Ernesto”, and a new playground for children located near Idlib and Aleppo Provinces in Syria, thanks to generous donations from their international group who helped Alaa after he was forced to leave East Aleppo.
I asked him if the sanctuary is still open and if they are accepting new animals. He said the new sanctuary is accepting new cats almost every day and he is now caring for approximately 60 abandoned and stray cats and kittens. He also rescued dogs and puppies and has been able to find good homes for almost all of them.
When asked about the future, his plans and expectations, Alaa told us he has many. “One thing I have learned about Alaa is that no matter how impossible his plans and dreams may seem they almost always come true,” told Alessandra.
They are citing a list of plans which will happen with the help of the group and also, Alaa hopes, with help from other organizations who find his goals worthwhile. Alaa wants to build a fully equipped veterinary clinic for the animals at his sanctuary. He said this veterinary clinic will also be available to the local population of Idlib and Aleppo provinces who could bring their domestic animals (not just cats and dogs) for free support and veterinary care. With the help of Syrian Charity, who employs Alaa as an ambulance driver, a free clinic at the Paradise of Ernesto will be established for people from the surrounding areas so they can have access to basic medical treatment.
Alaa said he would continue to employ people from the surrounding areas to help to feed the animals, cleaning, building, repair, etc. in the facilities. This work helps these people (many of whom are refugees from different parts of Syria) to regain their self-respect. Helping his neighbors is very important to Alaa.
He hopes to employ the services of a trained child psychologist who can give counsel and support to both local and refugee children and use “pet therapy” to enhance the lives of both the children and the animals. Alaa says this will reinforce his desire to educate the Syrian population about the love and care that pet animals need and the positive benefits that being with animals have on children. This is something that he learned when he had his sanctuary in East Aleppo.
ORPHAN HOME AND SCHOOL PROJECT
For the distant future, Alaa’s dreams are even bigger such as establishing a home for young orphans near the Paradise of Ernesto that would have fully trained staff to care for the children. Alaa is also dreaming about building a school near the Paradise of Ernesto: “The school would be for the children from the orphan home and also free for other young children in the area. The school would have fully trained teachers who would give the children a basic education and also vocational skills. All teaching would be integrated with pet therapy. I hope that one day these children will be able to lead in the rebuilding of Syria.”
Building a hospice for the disabled near the Paradise of Ernesto is Alaa’s another plan. “The hospice will have a fully trained staff of caretakers. I have seen that those who are disabled also gain great benefit from pet therapy and obtain joy by associating with young children,” he added.
I asked him about the situation in Aleppo now and if he is hopeful for the future. “Of course, the war continues,” he said, but Alaa is always hopeful and he will never give up. He believes that one day there will be peace again in Syria and his country will be rebuilt. Alessandra added: “This is his dream and my dream and also the dream of all of the members of our group. And, as I said, so many of Alaa’s dreams seem to come true. These are Alaa’s words that guide us: Someone who has mercy in their hearts for people has mercy for every living thing.”
A YOUNG VIOLINIST BECOMING HOPE FOR ALEPPO’S CHILDREN AND ANIMALS
Alaa’s projects could only be realized thanks to his encounter with Alessandra Abidin. I asked Alessandra her side of the story and how she started collaborating with Alaa, she told me: “At the end of 2015, after I saw a news story about Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel (Alaa) feeding abandoned cats in East Aleppo, and because I speak Arabic, as an animal lover I contacted Alaa to ask how I could help him. After that contact, I started the Facebook group, Il Gattaro D’Aleppo (The Cat Man of Aleppo) and we began to raise donations for Alaa. Thanks to the generosity of the first members of the group, Alaa was able to open his East Aleppo cat refuge called ‘The House of Ernesto’ named after my beloved cat, Ernesto.”
When asked about the purpose of their social media campaigns and achievements so far, she explained: “I would like to take a moment of your time to tell you about our group, Il Gattaro D’Aleppo, of which Alaa and I are so proud. Our members are women and men of every age and every profession, and from almost every country around the world. In our group, there is no discussion of politics, religion, or personal lives. The only focus of our group is how we can help Alaa and how much we admire the amazing things he has done that make such a difference in the lives of animals and humans in Syria. Our group is a place that our members can visit to see love and goodness in action.”
Alessandra said sometimes there is also sadness in the group, but it is sadness that they all share with each other. She quotes a group member to explain the influence of the group on the members: “She said that being a member of our group has made us all into better people than we were before joining the group. For Alaa and for me this has been amazing. We give our thanks to all these wonderful and caring people.”
ACHIEVEMENTS AND HOPES
The purpose of their group started out simply to help Alaa open a cat sanctuary and support the abandoned cats he brought to the sanctuary, Alessandra notes: “But, at Alaa’s request, it soon became obvious that we could help Alaa do many other things also to help the humans who were suffering greatly from the war.”
Alessandra gives us a long list of the things their group’s donations helped Alaa with in East Aleppo from November 2015 until December 2016 in addition to the opening of the cat sanctuary. According to the list, they installed a water well and an electric generator for 2000 people as well as an electric generator for an underground school. They replaced four bombed ambulances and gave financial support, food, medicines, clothes, and toys for orphans, disabled children, widows, disabled adults, and poor families. They created a playground for children, named “Amal” (The Garden of Hope), so that for a few hours their minds could escape from the atrocities of the war.
Alessandra explains that they regularly gave food to the elderly residents of the Saint Elisa Christian Monastery Retirement Home, gave food to needy people to celebrate the Ramadan and the Eid holidays and gave support for the family of well-known Abu Ward (his wife and six children), the last gardener of Aleppo who was killed by a bomb.
PARTIES FOR LOCAL CHILDREN
One of the interesting activities for the children organized by Alaa is holding many parties for local children and orphans. “During and after these parties, the children had the opportunity to interact with specially selected (friendly, domestic) cats. In this way, both the cats and the children had the opportunity to love and be loved, trust and be trusted. This helped both animals and children. Alaa says it was then when he saw what a difference pet therapy could make,” Alessandra said.
Since the fall of East Aleppo in December 2016, the group has raised money to help Alaa to build a new cat sanctuary and a new playground for children. “We also replaced Alaa’s ambulance that was destroyed in the tragic car bombing outside the city of Aleppo in April 2017 that killed so many children and almost took Alaa’s life. We have started funding a veterinary clinic for the sanctuary that will also be free to residents of the area,” Alessandra announces.
The humanitarian story of Alaa and Alessandra reminds us once again how human efforts can still make a difference in the middle of the war and how important reaching out to people for help is in this small world of internet and social media.
If you would like to support Alaa and Alessandra’s efforts to make life better in Aleppo, you can follow their activities at their Facebook group.