ABU DHABI // They look the same, dress alike, finish each other's sentences, and share a passion for looking after abandoned and injured cats. Hana and Ghina Saemeldahr, Syrian-born twins, have made it their duty to feed as many as 50 street cats every day for the past 10 years.
"When we were in Syria, it was normal for everybody to feed cats found in the street and in parks," said Hana. "Nobody hurt them, people were always throwing them leftovers from their food," added Ghina. "But when we came here we saw that the cats need us, many people are hurting them, many are left hungry and hurt, so we had to take on the responsibility to help them out." To illustrate the point, Hana pulled out three kittens from a box by the wall of the mosque behind Dubai Bank on Khalifa Street, which she had found near Lake Park.
"Their mother is missing and they were newborn, so I took them home and gave them milk for a few days then put them back here." The twins are private teachers, which means their work locations differ. However, three things never change in their day-to-day lives: every day at 10am they both go down to the mosque behind Dubai Bank and feed the cats there. "Then we split up, I go to the area of Al Nour Hospital and Hilal Bank, and Hana goes to the Lake Park and the Corniche," said Ghina.
"We repeat the same scenario in the afternoon at 4pm, and revisit the locations again at night just to check on the cats." Hana and Ghina, who are in their 30s and live with their parents, said they took care of around 10 cats in each area, which meant some 50 hungry felines were fed every day. The cost of this animal welfare was about Dh50 a day, the sisters said. "Sometimes we spend more, sometimes less, it depends on the price of cat food," said Hana. We wish they would reduce the prices, they get really expensive sometimes."
The twins said they did not mind spending the money, because they enjoyed taking care of the cats and believed it was a religious duty. "Islam ordered us to be merciful with all creatures," said Ghina. The sisters' philanthropic activities are not limited to providing food; they also shelter abandoned cats, take every cat they find to a vet to be spayed and provide medical treatment to any that are injured.
"A month ago, there was a cat hit by a car and had an iron bar cut through its back, so I took him to the BVC and spent Dh2,000 on the operation," said Ghina. "Every cat we see, we take it to the British Veterinary Clinic (BVC) for spaying." She lifted up a medium-sized grey cat, showing a "V" shape cut into the tip of its left ear. "This is how they mark spayed cats from the non-spayed ones," she said.
Over the past five years, the twins said around 60 of their charges had been spayed. Feline Friends, a private organisation dedicated to the care of street cats, paid for the procedures. As well as the animals the twins visit, they also have cats at the two-bedroom flat where they live. "Three of them are our own personal cats who were originally street cats. The other three were found stuck in an electricity room in a building behind a restaurant," Hana said.
"We called the municipality for assistance, they arrived an hour later. We stayed from 5pm until 2am trying to get them out. "Our house is very small, we keep the cats in our bedroom, and some in the corridor leading to the bathroom." The twins said they often found cats that had simply been left to die. Ghina recalled an incident when she came across two newborn kittens inside a box that had been thrown in a dustbin.
"By coincidence, I was passing by and heard their meowing, so I called Feline Friends and we rescued them." Recently, said Hana, they had found the bodies of a number of poisoned cats. "We took four of them to the British clinic, the doctor said they have been poisoned. Someone has been putting cat poison in electricity rooms to kill the cats. "There were also 23 cats killed near All Prints in Khalidiya, some of them were suckling, some were pregnant. We also found 10 kittens and took them in to shelter them," she added.
To help abandoned animals, the twins, along with five friends, formed a volunteer group last summer under the name Mercy Union that is dedicated to street cats. "The major problem we face is the lack of public awareness," said Ghina. "We just hope [people] stop killing cats, some cases can be easily treated. Also, when there are less cats, this means there will be more rats around. And we hope more people will join our group." Dr Fadi Dawoud, a vet at the BVC, said the Saemeldahr twins, and others he knew of who were equally dedicated, were to be applauded for their efforts.
"They are doing a wonderful job, they always have the will to spend their own money. "They visit the clinic at all times when they have a cat in need of care, they come during day time, late at night, they are very dedicated," he said. "[Cats] are helpless, they face a lot of suffering. These people who help them out are what makes cats survive, and from the Islamic perspective it is a religious thing to take care of animals."