In a war-torn region, three stories of true heroes.
Update, November 16th, 2017: We are so sorry to report that the sanctuary has been bombed. Most of the cats and dogs have died. Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel has survived.
Five years ago, Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel was an electrician living and working in Aleppo, Syria. Then a plane dropped barrel bombs close to his home, and he found himself rescuing the neighborhood children.
“They’d been thrown off the balcony into the street,” he told the BBC.
Today, he drives a makeshift ambulance. And while he’s still rescuing people, he’s also rescuing the lost pets and other animals whose families fled the city as refugees.
At first, Mohammad had about 25 cats. But today there are more than a hundred, and some dogs, too. And to care for them all, Mohammad is operating a fully functioning sanctuary.
“I’ll stay with them no matter what happens,” he said.
A Lebanese woman living in Italy helps support the animals through her Facebook group, Il Gattaro d’Aleppo – “Aleppo’s cat man.” (You can join the group and donate, too.)
The sanctuary is also a magnet for children who come to visit. They help care for the kitties and also just to play there.
People who live close by say the cats have brought good luck to the neighborhood.
“I regard animals and humans in the same light,” Mohammad told the BBC program Panorama. “All of them suffer pain, and all of them deserve compassion.” Here’s an excerpt:
The Gardener of Aleppo
Next, another hero and a bittersweet story:
Abu Ward’s flower nursery was an oasis of beauty and life in the midst of the hell that Aleppo had become.
His name meant “father of the flowers,” and despite all the bombing and shelling, he kept the nursery open.
People came from all around to buy flowers and bushes and plant them around their homes and even at roundabouts and other public places. They just wanted to nurture life in the midst of death.
“Making roundabouts beautiful gives meaning to life,” one of his customers told an NBC news reporter. “We continue to live and rebuild that which has been destroyed.”
Back at the nursery, as he touched a few green leaves growing at the top of an otherwise barren stick of a tree, Abu Ward said, “This one was hit by shrapnel from a barrel bomb. But it is still alive, thanks to God.
“This tree will live and we will live, despite everything.”
His 13-year-old son, Ibrahim, gave up school to be close to his father, working alongside him at the garden center.
But then, inevitably, it all came to an end. A bomb, dropped by President Assad’s military, exploded nearby. Abu Ward was killed. Ibrahim survived. The garden center is now closed.
Perhaps, when he’s a little older, the words of his father will inspire the teenager to re-open the nursery.
“Flowers help the world and there is no greater beauty than flowers,” Abu Ward once told his son.
“Those who enjoy the beauty of flowers enjoy the beauty of the world created by God − and when you smell them they nourish the heart and soul.”
And then he summed it up very simply:
“The essence of the world is a flower.”
A New Home for Laziz the Tiger
And third, the heroic work of diplomacy and rescue at a destroyed zoo in Gaza.
It’s been called “the worst zoo in the world.” But thanks to the international rescue group Four Paws, it’s just been shut down. And the survivors, including a Bengal tiger, have been taken to new homes in three different countries.
Six months ago, we wrote about the heroic work of Dr. Amir Khalil of Four Paws, to save the animals at the Khan Yunis zoo in Gaza.
During the war between Israel and Gaza in 2014, the three main zoos in Gaza were largely reduced to rubble. The animals were starving, and at Khan Yunis the owner had even stuffed some of the dead animals to make the zoo not look so empty. Really!
For anyone wanting to help the animals, just getting in and out of Gaza required diplomatic negotiations with three different countries: Israel, Jordan and Gaza itself. But after six months of dogged diplomacy and emergency rescue work, Dr. Khalil and his team succeeded in persuading the owner of the zoo to close it permanently.
And now all the surviving animals have been evacuated to sanctuaries and zoos in other countries.
Martin, another of the tigers at LionsRock. © FOUR PAWS | Mihai Vasile
For Laziz, a Bengal tiger, that means a new home far away at the LionsRock Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa, where he’s been settling in to a new life on two acres of grassy land, tree trunks to climb, and a swimming pond.
It takes some adjusting for a nine-year-old tiger who’s never known anything outside a small cage. For the first week or so, Laziz stayed mostly in his house within the enclosure.
“I can imagine that the silence around him at LionsRock compared to the noisy and violent environment in Gaza is very new for him,” Hildegard Pirker, head of animal welfare at LionsRock, told The Dodo.
But as he adapts, he’s discovering a whole new life that will make up for everything that went before.
The other 15 surviving animals at Khan Yunis zoo include five monkeys, a porcupine and an emu. The four vervets and the monkey are now living at the Israeli Primate Sanctuary Foundation, and the other animals are at the New Hope Centre sanctuary in Jordan.
You can make a donation to Four Paws to support Laziz here.