Our dog Amy had a brush with cancer recently, but fortunately we got her to the vet in time for the tumour to be removed before the cancer spread. While waiting for her test results we were preparing to maybe lose her, but when she was returned to us we understood more fully her preciousness.

Although there are people who do not share their lives with companion animals, very many of us do. I have been struck by the numerous photos of refugees trying to escape the current war in Ukraine taking their pets with them, many alongside their children and a few hastily gathered possessions. There are also sad images of people with children and with pets sheltering from prolonged periods of bombardment, and stories of people who have had to abandon pets as they flee from the violent destruction of their homes and neighbourhoods.

The header photo of our treasured pet dog Amy, aged ten, was taken today. The photo above is of her as a puppy a few days after she came home to us from the SPCA

The predicament of people and their pets in times of war reminded me of a news clip on television that I saw a few years ago about a volunteer ambulance driver who looked after lost and abandoned pet cats in war-torn Aleppo in Syria.

Before the war, Mohammad Aljaleel (known as Alaa) had worked as an electrician and his love of cats since childhood led him to take care of lost and abandoned cats. Once the war started he worked as an ambulance driver and for three years he continued the work of rescuing people and feeding homeless cats, continuing on even after the siege worsened and his wife and children managed to leave and escape to Turkey.

To feed the cats, Aljaleel visited local butchers to get leftovers and scraps of meat unfit for human consumption. In addition to the cats he rescued – often from the rubble of destroyed buildings – refugees would bring their pet cats to him before they fled. Eventually he was feeding over 100 cats.

After news coverage by a British journalist he was able to obtain some donations internationally that helped him care not only for the cats but also to buy food to distribute to 120 families. He assisted with digging wells and he set up a playground for children adjacent to the cat sanctuary. The playground in the presence of the cats was a place to help children escape from the trauma of the war all around them. He also ran animal welfare courses for children to help them build empathy.

Above photo and caption from https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-47473772

During the Battle of Aleppo (2012-2016) civilians were subjected to widespread violence that included the shelling and bombing of civilian areas, including the targeting of schools, hospitals and rescue workers. It is estimated that 31,183 people were killed in Aleppo during these four years and 79% of these deaths were among civilians, and included the deaths of thousands of children. With the scale of destruction I assumed that the cat sanctuary and all those involved would have been lost.

I recently learned that indeed amongst the thousands of places destroyed in Aleppo during the war, the cat sanctuary was hit by a bombardment in 2016. Aljaleel survived but many cats were killed or were so severely maimed they had to be euthanized and then the following day a chlorine bombing killed many of the survivors. In the end most of the sanctuary’s cats and the sanctuary dog were killed.

Bombardment of Aleppo from fighter jets remained ongoing but Aljaleel and other rescue workers continued rescuing people injured in the bombings taking them to underground hospitals. He also continued to look after the few surviving cats.

In December 2016 when the rebel areas of the city fell, Aljaleel left Aleppo in a convoy of escaping civilians. According to a report by the BBC when he left he crammed injured people and some of the surviving cats into the van he used as an ambulance. Friends smuggled out other cats in plastic vegetable baskets. They managed to escape the city and 22 cats in total were smuggled out.  Aljaleel then escaped to Turkey and visited his wife and children who had been there since 2015. After a period of recuperation he returned to Syria and in May 2017 he set up a new shelter for cats and other animals. The new shelter is in opposition-held territory west of Aleppo – the area is in a warzone in the Syrian civil war that is still ongoing after 11 years of conflict.

Above photo from ‘Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats in Syria’ Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TheSyrianCatMen/

The new shelter, Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats, is named after Ernesto, Aljaleel’s own cat, who in turn was named after a cat belonging to Alessandra Abidin who, working from Italy, assisted with fundraising and she started the Facebook page for the sanctuary. Below is a copy of the text of the ‘About page’ on the sanctuary’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TheSyrianCatMen/about.

Above photo from ‘Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats in Syria’ Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TheSyrianCatMen/

The sanctuary does amazing work, caring also for special needs animals that have been injured in war or due to accidents or deliberate abuse. Scrolling through the Facebook posts reveals very touching stories as well as very beautiful photographs.

Photos of some the cats taken from the sanctuary’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TheSyrianCatMen/

The new sanctuary includes a veterinary clinic for the sanctuary animals and it also provides free treatment for animals belonging to people in the area, including their livestock. When the drugs are available they also vaccinate animals for free. All male cats in the sanctuary are sterilized. There is not enough anaesthetic available to sterilize the females at this stage.

Above and below are photos of a dog named Blade, successfully fitted with prosthetic front paws. Photos from the sanctuary’s FaceBook page https://www.facebook.com/TheSyrianCatMen/

The sanctuary has expanded to include a clinic for people, a playground for children, a kindergarten and an orphanage – with residential accommodation for some children while others live out in the community. All these children are helped with education, food and clothing. Aljaleel believes that learning to care for animals not only teaches children kindness but helps them to heal their own war-related traumas.

The above photo of Alaa Aljaleel together with Maxi the fundraising cat is from https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-47473772

In a 2019 article ‘Why I started a cat sanctuary in war-torn Aleppo’ published online in ‘i news’,  Aljaleel concludes:

We are now rebuilding our communities in Syria, and my role in that is to rebuild my sanctuary for cats. Friendship between animals is a great thing and we should learn from them. Someone who has mercy in his heart for humans has mercy for every living thing.

My life has not been easy. I want my children to be proud of their father, to feel that he has done something good for people and the country.

When they grow up, I hope they understand the reasons why I stayed behind to do this work helping these children and animals that were hurt by the war.

I do not know the moment of my death. That is not for me to decide. But I know that others after me will now continue my work. And that is enough.


Diana Darke who co-authored with Aljaleel the book, The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo: A Remarkable True Story of Courage, Survival and Hope published in 2019, concludes an article for BBC News quoting from Aljaleel:

It seems the world cannot solve wars and conflicts these days. That’s why there are now so many refugees around the world, but especially here in the Middle East.

I do not want to be a refugee. I want to stay in my country, in Syria. I want to help people in any way I can.


The Syrian War so far has led to the displacement of over half of the population and killed over 350,000 people. It is sobering to realise that Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats continues its work in a warzone while warplanes continue to fly overhead.

See also the award-winning illustrated book for children The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, published in 2020 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 

Above are some illustrations from the book snipped from a Google images search page

Images above of  Alaa Aljaleel with cats snipped from a Google images search page


Aljaleel, Alaa. 2019/2020. Why I started a cat sanctuary in war-torn Aleppo. Inews . March 13, 2019 2:55 pm (Updated October 7, 2020 5:38 pm). https://inews.co.uk/inews-lifestyle/people/why-i-started-a-cat-sanctuary-in-war-torn-aleppo-268703

Arab News. 2018. In war-torn Syria, ‘cat man’ starts rare animal clinic. Arab News, 5 June. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1315181/offbeat

Darke, Diana. 2019. Return of the cat man of Aleppo. 7 March. BBC News.https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-47473772

Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats in Syria. @TheSyrianCatMen. Non-profit organisation. https://www.facebook.com/TheSyrianCatMen/

Wikipedia. 2022. Battle of Aleppo (2012–2016) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Aleppo_(2012%E2%80%932016)#Casualties


Aljaleel, Alaa with Diana Darke. 2019. The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo: A Remarkable True Story of Courage, Survival and Hope. Headline Publishing Group

Latham, Irene and Karim Shamsi-Basha. 2020. The Cat Man of Aleppo, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Posted by Carol