The Activists Who’ve Saved 1,000 Pets From Syria’s War Zones

The Activists Who’ve Saved 1,000 Pets From Syria’s War Zones

By Stephen Starr

A boy plays with a dog on the outskirts of Hasakah, Syria.


Because these volunteers are risking their own lives to relocate abandoned cats and dogs.

By Stephen Starr

When Sedra Ayoub Agha and her family fled Damascus in August 2015, she was heartbroken. Not only because she was fleeing her life and home, but also because she had to leave her beloved cats, Rose and Jack, behind. These irreplaceable companions had helped Agha through the loss of another feline that went missing when the war started in her neighborhood. “We left the area, but she jumped out of the car because she was scared,” says Agha. The cat was never found. “I was very sick because of the sadness. That’s why my father bought Rose and Jack for me.”

People fleeing war often have no choice but to leave their pets behind. Without their primary caretakers, cats and dogs often end up on the street, abandoned or abused. But even shelters are at risk. Ernesto’s Sanctuary in Aleppo was destroyed in November 2017, killing several cats and a dog (the clinic was later revived in another part of the city). The dire situation has spurred a brave group of pet lovers to take action.

It’s the only rescue effort of its kind in the city.

As the war worsened in 2013 and 2014, Rawaa Kilani, an animal activist from Damascus, joined concerned animal lovers in Germany, the Netherlands and other countries and set up Cat Connect, a charity that works to reunite animals with their Syrian owners. When that’s not possible, pets and as well as strays are handed over to foster owners. It’s the only rescue effort of its kind in the city.

Rawaa Kilani at Brussels airport from where dozens of pets as well as injured and stray animals have arrived from Syria.

Rawaa Kilani at Brussels Airport, where dozens of pets as well as injured and stray animals arrive from Syria.

Source Courtesy of Rawaa Kilani

Often the situations are risky and fraught with danger. Inspired by her mother, who also rescued animals, Kilani and her team have occasionally dived into active conflict areas to retrieve animals. Sometimes they deal with government checkpoints, where soldiers are often perplexed by her work. Still, “some are even helpful,” she says. 

“We have resettled pets in the U.S., the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, France, the U.K., Dubai and soon, for the first time, Italy,” says Kilani. She estimates that around 1,000 animals have been relocated.

Getting animals out of Syria is a complicated and expensive process. Once they’re found, the pets are typically issued a passport and driven across the border to Lebanon, where they’re examined for diseases, vaccinated and microchipped by a local vet. From Beirut the animals are flown as cargo to various locations in Europe, and sometimes to North America. The costs can run into more than $1,000 per animal — all funded through donations. “I arrange all flights to get them out,” says Kilani, who’s now based in the Netherlands. 

Sedra Ayoub Agha with her cat, Jack.
Sedra Ayoub Agha with her cat, Jack.
Source: Courtesy of Sedra Ayoub Agha

And just because the guns have increasingly fallen silent in Syria today doesn’t mean the situation for pets and strays has improved much, Kilani explains. “Life now, after the war, has become worse than during the war,” she says. There is no food or medicine, and many pets that were left behind have become strays. 

The mission to give a better life to animals impacted by war has inspired action across the world. In Afghanistan, soldiers have set up nonprofit and crowdfunding efforts to bring rescued street dogs and cats to the U.S. and the U.K. Dozens of imperiled zoo animals in Syria, Gaza and elsewhere have been transported to safer countries in recent years.

It’s an effort that comes full circle. Pets can help people, particularly children, deal with the psychological trauma brought on by war and displacement. While there has been little research into how exposure to animals helps children and adults deal with the aftereffects of war, a 2018 study on veterans and dogs published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology posited that: “The addition of trained service dogs to usual care may confer clinically meaningful improvements in PTSD symptomology for military members and veterans with PTSD.”

Kilani helped Jack and Rose reconnect with Agha in 2016 in the Netherlands, where her family now lives. “If she hadn’t helped us,” Agha says, “we wouldn’t have been able to get them [here].”

The War in Syria: Hundreds of Aleppo’s Cats Saved by ‘Cat Man’