Long before she left Syria for the Netherlands a year ago, Damascene Rawaa Kilani has been on a one-women mission to save Syria’s pets from the horrors of war.
It was two years ago in Daraya, a once-besieged and contested suburb of Syria’s capital, that she found herself surrounded by fierce fighting, diving headlong into one of her most dangerous assignments: saving an injured dog’s life.
“I always take calls from people to help animals because I’m the only person doing this, and that day there was a dog stuck in the middle of the fighting,” she says. “So, I drove out there and some soldiers helped me take the dog from a destroyed building,” she says nonchalantly, adding how she regularly passed through checkpoints when ferrying pets from Syria to Lebanon, something she did for many years when working in Syria for a trading and contracting company.
“It was not easy to pass by checkpoints, I had to make an argument most of the time, but sometimes I could get through with nice talk,” she says.
“I wasn’t scared. I don’t think about it.”
Yorkshire terriers, husky puppies, cocker spaniels and even songbirds have landed on Greek beaches, been seen hanging around makeshift camps in the Balkans or carried underarm by refugees marching north on the rural pathways of central Europe.
As recently as last month, Syrian Tariq Kamci and his Persian cat embarked from western Turkey in the freezing wind with the dream of beginning a new life somewhere, anywhere in Europe.
But their hopes were soon dashed. They and 61 others from Syria and Tunisia were detained by the Turkish coastguard and brought back to Çesme. Kamci would be processed by the police and probably released. No such procedure exists for his cat.
For some among the millions of Syrians who’ve fled war, bringing their favourite pet has helped cope with the trauma of a dangerous odyssey. Many know that once they leave their homeland with little more than the contents of a suitcase to link them to their past lives, they’ll probably never see their homes, their neighbours or their schools again.
Many, however, simply don’t have the means to carry their pets, and that is where Kilani, who runs the nonprofit organisation Cat Connect, and a team of volunteers and charities in Germany and elsewhere in Europe have stepped in.
For Bettina Marie Schneider of the charity Frieden für Pfoten (Peace for Paws), the motivation to help came about after seeing photos of cats and dogs with beleaguered refugees on the beaches of Greece. “We decided to start a Facebook group where we would collect anything that might be helpful for refugees who want to take their pets with them,” she says. “We try to provide information about necessary vaccinations, country regulations, where refugees would find support and maybe also foster homes, on the way.”
However, even the animals that manage to reach the relative safety of Europe are still at risk. According to Schneider, a dog taken from an elderly Syrian couple in Sweden was put to death by the authorities, even though it had been vaccinated for the rabies virus. At least one cat brought from Syria to Europe has been abused and left for dead by its foster hosts.
“It is almost impossible to find figures for the number of refugees bringing pets with them because many who do so successfully do so secretly,” says Schneider. “The official restrictions are so hard to master, we need many months to make it happen legally and it costs huge amounts of money [to bring pets to Europe].”
The UNHCR in Berlin told The National it does not have a policy "or any organised approach to deal with the pets of refugees", and charities say there is no official state assistance or programme for refugees in possession of pets. The fact that animals are not allowed into refugee camps also puts people off the idea of carrying them all the way from Syria. This is despite the fact that research shows interacting with pets helps people deal with post-traumatic stress disorder because praising dogs, cats or other animals triggers an emotional response and releases oxytocin, which helps overcome anti-social symptoms.
For children, having a cat or dog to play with has helped offset the fear and waiting along the smuggling route and the prospect of starting an entirely new life in Europe. For others the pets remain simple symbols of home and hope.
Thus far, Peace for Paws has connected five refugees with their animals. Many more who are either unable to care for their pets while they themselves live in camps or small flats have asked the charity for assistance, which it has largely been able to provide.
For Bob Issa from the western Syrian village of Mashta al-Helu, who has lived most of his life in Aleppo, leaving behind his corgi-mix Jesse was heartbreaking. “I didn’t see her for more than 18 months and it felt so bad because I wasn’t sure that she was in good hands,” he says.
All the while Issa was enduring turmoil of his own on the journey from Syria to Europe. “It took me about a month to get to Germany, and the worst part of the trip was the rubber boat between Turkey and Greece. There was too much water coming in and too much shouting and screaming; people were praying for their lives.”
Back in Syria, Jesse’s situation took a precarious turn. The cousin taking care of Issa’s dog said after a month and a half that he would be forced to give her away. By this point Issa, then in Germany, was struggling with the idea of if and how he would ever see his dog again. He researched the logistics of microchipping and vaccinations in a country where the lives of millions of people facing humanitarian worries were the priority. Jesse was, for a time, forced to stay at a foster home in Damascus.
Months passed. Issa had been in Germany for almost a year and in near despair over Jesse’s fate. Last April, Issa posted a comment to the Facebook page “Help for Refugees with Pets” that’s administered by Schneider and volunteers at the Peace for Paws charity, enquiring about the cost of getting a dog first to Lebanon and then on to Germany.
“A friend of mine suggested that and I started to talk with people and groups on Facebook,” he says. Within days a thread emerged with pledges of donations and advice from people as far away as the United States, asking how they could help.
“At first I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get her to Germany, but when I saw people’s reactions I was kind of sure that one day I would get her here.”
Bob Issa with his dog Jesse in Syria.
Last February 6 at 7.45am, Jesse touched down on a Germania airlines flight from Beirut. Issa at first had conflicting emotions during their reunion. “I met her at a rendezvous point near Frankfurt and I don’t really know how I felt because she was tired and didn’t know me at first,” he says. “I was happy and sorry for her at the same time.”
Kilani says so far she has helped reunite three dogs and 20 cats with Syrian refugees in Europe. She also says she has worked with Peace for Paws several times and that they “helped us a lot with some donations and finding foster homes for many cats”.
“Now we are working on four more cats we hope will come in the next two months,” she says.
The lack of money, however, remains the volunteers’ biggest challenge. Transporting five cats from Syria to Europe can cost up to US$3,000 (Dh11,000) and dogs cost more. Additionally, pets must be accompanied by a person who flies from Europe to Beirut and back again.
Blood tests in Syria cost $250 and travel documents and associated papers another $300. “Yet,” says Kilani, “I’ve never failed to get a pet out of Syria – in total that’s more than 300 cats and about 55 dogs that went for adoption in Europe and the US.”
It is this refusal to give up on even the most hopeless of cases that has given strength and belief to refugees starting out on new, uncertain lives.
Last year, when a Syrian family and its three cats found themselves on the wrong side of the Greek-Macedonia border for several months, volunteers stepped in to take the cats to Germany. “It wasn’t even funny that the cats could find a way to go to Germany but the family could not,” says Kilani.
Life, however, went downhill for the felines. The foster family mistreated the cats and one, according to Kilani, was kicked, dropped or thrown from a sixth-storey balcony. “I went to Germany and took the two remaining cats to bring them back to the Syrian family, now in Turkey,” she says. “We thought the third cat was dead, but for a year I stayed looking. After she fell from the balcony, a foundation found her and treated her. Last week I found Fula.”
Now the family hopes to bring the injured cat to Turkey, although its injuries are too severe for travel just yet.
“What do the pets represent?” asks Kilani. “People see pets as a part of their family.”
Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who has lived in Syria and Turkey since 2007.