Compassionate Companions: How cats are providing comfort to residents


Words by Adam Bates - a former volunteer on the island of Lesvos.

“Agh!” I spun to my right to see what Anne (International Volunteer Coordinator) was screaming at. I saw her with mouth wide open and hand clasped to her chest, “Look! I almost stood on it!” 

She pointed down to the pallet where two scared little eyes peeped through a gap. I bent down and pulled the kitten out to safety. The kitten was alone, but one of Movement’s resident volunteers soon helped me find its home with other resident kitties. 

I shared what had happened with the coordinators and my fellow Movement volunteers and they let me know of a new project that was soon starting to help cats and their human companions. As a lover of all animals, I knew I had to be involved. 

The trapped kitty I found in Kara Tepe.

I got in touch with the project coordinator Margot Albert, and she explained to me how she discovered that cats could be a great help to the residents of Kara Tepe camp. Refugees have often experienced great trauma, and forming an emotional bond with some type of animal can be a therapeutic way of healing. The problem was, many of the cats had contagious illnesses and they were spreading fast.

The initial purpose of the project – now named Compassionate Companions – is to vaccinate and sterilise the cats of Kara Tepe so they are in a healthy and safe state to be cared for by residents. First of all, we had to ascertain, as best we could, how many cats were in Kara Tepe camp, so I began a survey. As I started surveying, it opened my eyes as to the great importance and impact of the project.

Documenting the cats and their owners in the Olive Groves.

I found a four-year-old girl from Afghanistan playing with a kitten. With the help of a resident interpreter, the girl’s mum told me, “I’m really worried for my daughter. She loves that cat so much. She never leaves it alone. Since it became ill, she doesn’t go anywhere because she doesn’t want to leave the kitten alone. I’ve been very worried about it dying because, if it does, my daughter wouldn’t be able to sleep. I don’t know what she’d do.”

Thanks to this Compassionate Companions project, we were able to get the kitten to Myrsini Tourvali Veterinary Clinic in the town of Mytilini – who might just be the world’s best vets, so caring, kind and professional! They cleaned the kitten, removing hundreds of fleas and gave it all of the required treatments.

Margot and I with the cats of Kara Tepe at Myrsini Tourvali Veterinary Clinic. 

The kitten is now clean and infection-free, and the young girl is thrilled to have her healthy furry friend back. Her relieved mum also couldn’t thank us enough. The project has most likely saved the kitten’s life and prevented the girl experiencing more distressing trauma.

This is the effect the project intends to have many times over. In fact, it already has. Three cats close to death have already been saved in the first few weeks of the projects implementation, which has also helped to stop the spread of deadly viruses to other cats. 

Now, vaccination and sterilisation of all the cats has begun. In alignment with Movement’s Camp to CampUs philosophy, a resident volunteer on Kara Tepe is helping to run the Compassionate Companions project. The resident is a cat lover who lost five of his 12 cats to illness. He has started catching the cats in cages several mornings a week, ready to be picked up by the vets.

Resident volunteer Adil has a great bond with the cats of Kara Tepe.

We’ve estimated that there were around 100 cats in the camp altogether, but the numbers are falling. On visiting one family who had seven beloved cats, the mother told us how devastated they were that all but one of them had recently died just before the project began due to illness.

“We love them! The children have always been cuddling them. We were all so sad when they died. They’ve been getting problems with their eyes. We tried to care for them with warm water because that’s all we had,” she explained.

For the kitties and the human residents, it’s tremendously important that we’re able to continue providing medical assistance to the cats. Myrsini, one of the vets from the clinic warns, “The immune systems of the residents can be very low. That means it’s possible that some conditions can even be transmitted from cat to human.”

After working on the project for a month, I left the island having learned just how comforting the cats and residents can be to each other. I’ve also come to understand how such simple treatments can be transformative for poor cats, and therefore their human companions. With enough support, this project can scale to other areas in need, saving countless cats, and offering more comfort and dignity to residents.

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