The images from Syria’s civil war are enough to make your heart crumble in on itself, but underneath the stream of conflict and gore pics from the war is a goofy, avuncular cat lover from Aleppo whose daily tweets and pics of his may help restore your faith in humanity
Meet Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, the famous Catman of Aleppo who built a shelter for his war-torn city’s helpless fuzzy residents. You can find Alaa at Ernesto’s House of Cats in Aleppo showing his evident pride at a tiny little wheelchair he and his colleagues fashioned out of some old swivel wheels and PVC pipe for Antonio, a disabled kitten with paralyzed hind legs from being hit by a car. He’s also fond of making dad jokes about his devotion to his wards and dresses them up in photoshoots befitting a proverbial cat lady.
Before the war, Alaa was an electrician who picked up work as an ambulance driver for a local charity. As the war progressed, Alaa and his friend Alessandra Abidin were able to turn his hobby of feeding Aleppo’s stray cats with whatever he could spare into a full-time shelter operation. Even as a government siege choked off food and supplies, the doors stayed open and today it still takes in the beloved pets of families no longer able to care for them.
The Assad regime took the rebel stronghold in east Aleppo back in late 2016, capping off a relentless bombing campaign by the Russian air force. Alaa’s original shelter in the city was bombed last year so in May he reopened the sanctuary in a safer location on Aleppo’s outskirts with help from donations from abroad. The war in Syria—and the fighting in Aleppo—still rages on, though, audible in the background as his cats eat under the crackle of distant gunfire and the thud of artillery.
To the residents of Aleppo, the House of Cats has a sanctuary for both felines and children caught in the conflict. Alaa opens his doors to local schools for “pet therapy” where local kids can play with the kittens, take a break from the stress of war, and learn “respect and love for animals.”
To the outside world, the House of Cats—accessible to a wider audience thanks to some English-language translation help—is a reliable stream of pics and videos where viewers can catch up on the rotating cast of cat personalities and the endearingly lame jokes and backstories Alaa makes for ones like Maxi the Marketing King and Ernesto, Alaa’s first cat who gets the Donald Trump treatment.
It’s an antidote to the oversimplified storylines and stereotypes Westerners are accustomed to seeing about Syria, a way to show the world that Syrians are more than just depraved terrorists and soldiers or hapless refugees. They’re people who share the same weakness for cats and cat pics as the rest of us on the Internet. People with boundless generosity and hope just trying to build a better community amidst the chaos of war.