ALEPPO, Syria -- With the bombs came the cats.
Ambulance driver and paramedic Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, says he began caring for the desperate animals in what was rebel-held eastern Aleppo in 2013.
"As people were fleeing and leaving their neighborhoods, the cats started to come to my area because I was already feeding some," Aljaleel told NBC News in a recent interview.
When the Syrian civil war became more intense so did his responsibilities. Aljaleel's pride grew from six or seven hungry felines to more than 170, he says.
By 2015, the 42-year-old had built a sanctuary, "Ernesto's House," named after his first cat.
As Syrian and then Russian aircraft targeted the area and much of the population refused to capitulate to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, Aljaleel became known as the "Cat Man of Aleppo" — a symbol of resilience and kindness amid war and devastation.
From the beginning, Aljaleel said his aim was to protect, feed and keep his felines healthy, as well as create a playground for children with swings and other games.
"It was a really wonderful job," he said. "All the schools and the children used to come and visit the sanctuary. They would see the huge amount of cats that were left behind by their owners."
And when more fleeing families learned about him, they would drop their cats off before leaving the city in search of safety.
As well as caring for cats, Aljaleel would also take care of stray dogs when he could, feeding them and giving them simple veterinary care — although he stopped short of bringing them to live with the cats.
Then, as with so many others in the Syrian war, Aljaleel eventually became a victim himself.
In November, bombs struck "Ernesto's House," reducing it to rubble, he said. Most of the cats were killed and he was forced to flee the city with just a handful of the survivors. Aljaleel's perilous journey to reach the countryside outside Aleppo took 15 days.
"Ernesto's House" now has a new home in the countryside west of Aleppo. Aljaleel's story has attracted followers from around the world thanks to media reports and his own Facebook page.
Some people have donated money, others even organized fundraising events in the U.S. and Spain, all of which helped him rebuild.
He said that his friends "saw that I suffered a lot from this loss. They wanted to help me in any way."
Aljaleel said caring for the animals put a lot of pressure on his personal life and he ended up separating from his wife; she and his two children now live in Turkey. He said he tries to visit them as frequently as possible.
"I hope my children one day will understand what their father was doing," Aljaleel said. "And that the world will repay them with the same kindness and mercy I've given to these animals and humans in need."
His new home outside Aleppo now has about 25 cats. But for Aljaleel and the people who visit it, it is more than just a cat sanctuary.
"It seeks to erase the war from children's minds," he said. "Caring for the cats is a gateway to bringing good will to the country and build it around being more merciful."
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