This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
“Kyra! Kyra!” someone calls from an apartment in the Dutch city of Utrecht. The building’s hallways are carpeted and there’s a walker outside nearly every door as I make my way upstairs. “Hi,” says Hiba, 29, holding her black-and-white cat. She shares the apartment with her parents and her two pets – Kyra and Tabloesj.
Hiba and her family fled from Damascus, Syria’s capital, in 2016. By that time, the civil war had already claimed 400,000 lives. To get to the Netherlands, she had to leave her pets behind – Kyra with friends and Tabloesj at a shelter.
“I cried every day,” she says. “Tabloesj lived in the shelter for two years. Nobody wanted him, I knew he wasn’t being treated well, other cats were attacking him. So I asked Rawaa for help.”
Rawaa Kilani, 43, is the founder of CatConnect, a Dutch non-profit that reunites pet owners with animals left behind in Syrian war zones. Rawaa says she is well-known in her hometown of Damascus, where she lived until 2016. Netflix featured her work in the 2018 docuseries Dogs, in which Rawaa is shown helping Syrian refugee Ayham smuggle his husky Zeus out of the war-torn capital.
But Rawaa doesn’t just orchestrate reunions, she’s also found hundreds of new homes for stray cats and dogs from Syria. The animals end up in countries all over Europe, the United States, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
Over the phone, Rawaa tells me she’s been saving animals for 25 years. Before she was forced to leave Damascus, she personally adopted 40 cats and used to feed up to 150 strays a day. In 2010, she founded CatConnect with a friend living in the Netherlands. Rawaa would rescue cats in Syria, while her friend coordinated their transport and adoption in the Netherlands.
In 2016, Rawaa left Syria and started running CatConnect by herself. She now lives with her husband, newborn twins and four cats in the Dutch town of Apeldoorn. Funded by donations, CatConnect is a full-time job, but she doesn’t take a salary. “I sold my car and gold jewellery in Syria so I could keep feeding the street cats,” says Rawaa. Her family now depends on benefits for their living expenses.
“I think I’ve helped to reunite seven or eight families in the Netherlands with their pets”, she says, “but worldwide that number is much higher.” Currently, she’s assisting a girl living in the Netherlands who wants to bring her grandfather over from Syria – but he refuses to budge without the family’s two dogs. Needless to say, the pandemic is a complicating factor, since direct flights from both Syria and neighbouring Lebanon are currently unavailable.
It’s not easy to bring an animal to the Netherlands, Rawaa explains: “I have a team in Syria, they take care of all the paperwork and buy cages for the pets. I find a volunteer who can accompany them on the plane and a taxi from Beirut or Damascus, or another location in Syria.”
The team also arranges rabies tests and the vaccinations the animals need to be let into Europe. “Lastly, we make sure there will be someone at the airport to pick up the animal,” she says. All in all, bringing over a pet cots a total of €600 (£533). If someone doesn’t have the funds, CatConnect also helps them raise money.
Before leaving Damascus, Hiba had about ten cats. “We learn from a young age that animals aren’t worth anything,” she says. “It’s not very common there to care about animals.”
She thinks the streets of the capital are filled with strays because, in Syrian culture, people don’t usually keep pets. “If a cat got hit by a car, nobody would stop for it or take it to the vet,” she says, but explains that her and her family were always cat lovers, and used to feed and help many animals in need.
Reem, 42, and her daughter Sedra, 17, are two others reunited with their furry family in the Netherlands, thanks to Rawaa. Speaking to them over Zoom, I learned the two had fled via Lebanon, Turkey and Greece in 2015, leaving their cats Jack and Rose behind with Sedra’s dad. Her parents are divorced, but her dad is also now in the Netherlands.
Sedra said their journey to the Netherlands was traumatic. Their boat from Turkey to Greece broke down and they said they were intimidated at gunpoint and left without food and water by Greek soldiers. “It took us 20 days in total, and we barely slept the whole time,” she explained.
After two years in a centre for asylum seekers, the two were assigned a home in Venlo, in the south east of the country. “My dad would send us pictures and videos of the animals from time to time,” Sedra said. “Sometimes, my mum and I would cry because we wanted to see them so badly. We can’t live without our cats, they’re like children to us.”
Through word of mouth, they heard about CatConnect. Rawaa took care of the paperwork and paid for the pets’ expenses, since Sedra’s family couldn’t afford them. Jack and Rose were booked on a flight to Belgium together with two other cats, but things didn’t go as smoothly as expected.
Rose had gotten a rabies vaccine in Syria, but it didn’t show up in her blood work.
“We were given a few options – we could either kill her, or give her the vaccine again, or she had to go back to Syria,” said Sedra. “We didn’t have money for any of those things, so Rawaa ended up paying for the vaccine.” The entire process took about three-and-a-half months, and Rawaa arranged for someone to house Jack and Rose for that period. “We owe her everything,” Sedra said.
At first, the cats didn’t recognise Sedra and her mum, and kept lashing out, but within a few days they were back to their cuddly ways. Both the cats and their owners went through a lot, and Sedra said having them here helps make the Netherlands feel like home.
“When we’re sad, they get close to us,” she said. “They sleep next to us and give us the positive energy we need to keep going.”
If you want to support CatConnect, you can donate here.