Article from THE ARAB NEWS by Nick McAlpin
Palestine is no stranger to big families, but step inside Ahlam Tarayra’s Ramallah home and you’ll find a household of a unique kind.
Meet Bundoq, Fahed, Helweh, Ruby, Sukkara, Tamra, Yucca and Zada. As one of five all-vegan founders of Palestinian animal rescue group Baladi, 41-year-old Ahlam lives with eight cats.
Her furry family roams freely among the tables and chairs, eating, sleeping and demanding love.
The cats have been through a lot: from blindness to broken limbs. Helweh adopted herself into the fold by meowing outside Ahlam’s home until she was brought indoors and showered.
Bundoq lived in Ahlam’s human family’s home in Hebron at one point after being rescued. One day in June 2021, he escaped to the roof. “The vet says he probably was chasing a bird or a lizard or something,” Ahlam tells The New Arab.
“It was like, early in the morning and we couldn’t find him in the house. And then we went outside, and he was under the car – traumatised and like, really, really in bad shape. And then we realised he had a broken leg.”
The vet said it looked like Bundoq, now aged two, had fallen from the seventh or eighth floor given the impact on his body. In reality, he’d only dropped two storeys. “We think… he didn’t try to leave, he fell without realising,” says Nada Kitena, 29, a Baladi founder who grew up in the US.
Palestinian animal rescue group Baladi has worked with around 150 animals since its creation in late 2019. Despite the difficulties of operating under Israeli occupation and having to juggle other life commitments, the team makes a real difference.
Treatment didn’t come cheap. It cost 2,500 shekels ($700) in clinic fees alone. That’s around 16 days’ pay for the typical Palestinian employee from the West Bank based on the 2020 average daily wage.
Other general expenses include food for the cats and dogs Baladi looks after as well as spaying and neutering procedures, which stop animals from reproducing. This has health benefits, keeps the number of animals in the group’s care manageable and ensures Palestine’s large stray cat and dog population isn’t added to.
Baladi, whose only members are its five founders, was created in December 2019 and began its work the following month. Team members rescue animals they aim to eventually adopt out, though in future they’d instead like to have a “safe space” for them, Nada says.
Through a GoFundMe campaign started in November 2020, Baladi has raised over $2,000 to support its work. Despite this, most expenses come out of the team’s pockets – even though vets will sometimes perform operations for the group at cost or for a reduced profit.
Juggling work and family responsibilities and finding space for animals as requests pour in on Facebook and Instagram are key challenges for Baladi.
Group members, their friends and independent rescuers host cats and dogs at their homes for Baladi, which recently created a LaunchGood fundraising campaign to help build an animal shelter. This is for a volunteer looking after four dogs the group rescued, though there will be room for the number of animals there to grow as required.
Since its creation, Baladi has worked with around 150 animals – mostly cats and dogs but also a pigeon. The team, which receives dozens of requests for help or advice a day, usually covers vet costs and gives guidance when it doesn’t have the capacity to take a case on.
A remarkable transformation
“We had to muzzle her because she would have attacked us because of how traumatised she was. And she blossomed, and she gained weight”
In Baladi’s care, an animal’s transformation can be remarkable. Bataleh was a “really skinny dog”, Nada says, and she had a bullet lodged in her body. This either came from a deliberate shooting or happened when someone fired into the air during a wedding or other celebration, as is common in the Middle East.
Her life was turned around through the dedication of Baladi founder Ameed Jaber. Bataleh needed many rounds of nutrition and IV treatment and also suffered from worms. “She didn’t want to get near,” Nada says. “We had to muzzle her because she would have attacked us because of how traumatised she was. And she blossomed, and she gained weight.”
Bataleh is still not domesticated and lives outside, but has a “much, much healthier shape” and even began smiling towards the end of her treatment, Nada adds.
‘You can’t rely on the checkpoints’
However, this good work is made much harder by the Israeli occupation. Baladi rescues sick and injured animals in the West Bank, mostly in Ramallah and Hebron, where Israel imposes potentially deadly restrictions on Palestinians’ movements.
“Sometimes, if you have an emergency rescue with you, you can’t rely on the checkpoints,” says Ahmad Shweiki, 29, a third Baladi founder and Nada’s husband.
“For example, we have like this one very specialised vet that we know of. He’s not the cheapest, but he’s very, very good. So, very difficult cases, we rely on him to treat them. But he’s in Jerusalem. So, if we have a very difficult emergency situation, we can’t make sure that the animal won’t die on the way.”
Nada says a cat was once brought to her after being hit by a car. While she still doesn’t know if it had already passed away when it was given to her, “by the time I crossed the checkpoint, it was dead”, she says.
“Sometimes, if you have an emergency rescue with you, you can’t rely on the checkpoints… So, if we have a very difficult emergency situation, we can’t make sure that the animal won’t die on the way”
But not all animal-related problems stem from Israel. Issues also exist within Palestinian society itself. “There are stigmas for cats,” Nada says. “They say they cause infertility. And then dogs, they will say that these are haram [forbidden in Islam] – and that’s not true, even from like the religious perspective. The culture has a long way to go in terms of respecting animals.”
The native Palestine viper is also a victim of negative perceptions. “Because of the stigma against snakes… there’s a lot of people who hunt them and kill them for no reason,” Ahmad says.
But Ahlam feels the situation is improving – at least for cats. “More people are considering raising cats. More people are like feeding the… stray cats in their neighbourhood,” she says. “I remember in the past… if you passed by a… runover cat, you’re just like, ‘What can I do? It’s… a matter of time and she’ll die.'”
Ahlam adds that her aunt feeds around 20 cats outside her house. Her aunt said they used to place poison down to get rid of mice and rats but with their feline friends around, there’s no longer a need. “There is some kind of awareness about how the ecosystem is functioning,” Ahlam says.
Beyond the natural ecosystem, Palestinians are also well aware of their political struggle for national liberation – an area where animal welfare and rights are a battleground.
Supporters of Israel often engage in veganwashing – efforts to whitewash Israeli crimes by highlighting and commonly overstating the country’s vegan credentials, giving the impression it’s too ethical to violate Palestinians’ rights.
For Nada, Baladi’s work helps challenge veganwashing. It shows “right away that here, there are Palestinians who care about animals”, she says. “They are vegan. They want a world where animals and people are treated with dignity. These Palestinians exist. I think just our existence… combats [veganwashing].”
Securing this existence requires money, an issue Baladi has a firm stance on. “As a group, we are clear about our policy not to cooperate with Israeli organisations and not to get funds from any Israeli party – whether organisation or individual,” Ahlam says. Nada adds that the team is “very picky” when accepting donations across the board.
But donations are not the only means of fundraising available to Baladi. Operating as a separate company, four of its founders have begun selling vegan labneh – a tangy yoghurt cheese traditionally made from milk.
“When they try the [vegan labneh], you can see it… on their faces. It was obvious they never expected that something would taste… [so] much like the original thing”
All proceeds from the sale of the labneh, which Ahlam invented, have so far gone towards rescuing animals. It took two years to perfect the taste and texture but in 2022 the group started selling its Palestinian culinary delight, which is made from almonds, at a summer farmers’ market in Ramallah.
“Almonds is… a Palestinian thing. It’s easier to have people think about how would the almonds become a yoghurt,” says Ahlam, who’s a certified vegan chef.
The team brands its yoghurt cheese “La2baneh” (pronounced “la-baneh”) – a play on the Arabic word for “no”, indicating it contains no dairy.
But in Palestine, as throughout the world, most of the population is non-vegan. So, what do people think?
“When they try the La2baneh, you can see it… on their faces. It was obvious they never expected that something would taste… [so] much like the original thing,” Ahlam says.
For Ahmad, the almonds in the La2baneh have a social significance. “This is a Palestinian campaign,” he says. “So, [the more] local it gets, [the] better it gets [for] the community. You end up taking from the community and giving back to the community.”
Nick McAlpin is a journalist who has worked at The New Arab since March 2021. He holds a master’s degree in social anthropology and a BA in French and Arabic. He lived in Jordan for a year during his undergraduate studies. Nick started his journalism career as a freelancer in 2019.
Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin