In September 2015, Youssef Saleh was walking in the south of Lebanon when he came across a bleeding, dismembered German shepherd mix dog with burnt whiskers in a garbage can.

“I didn’t know what to do,” the Lebanese man said. “I just took a picture of him, standing in the garbage, with his [paw] chopped off and I posted it on Facebook and I said, ‘Every act of violence to any living creature is a one-way ticket to hell.’”

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The photo got attention. Saleh was contacted less than a week later by Jennifer Yoon, vice president and co-founder of the Baltimore-based nonprofit called Wings of Love, Kuwait, which rescues dogs that have been abused or abandoned and then adopts them out to owners in the U.S.

Saleh cared for the dog he found, which he named Chowder and his new U.S. owner later named Bane, for about four weeks — making sure he got a proper amputation and medical care complete with vaccinations so that he could then send him to Baltimore for adoption.

Following the experience, Saleh began regularly working with Wings of Love to send one dog to the U.S. each year. And nearly three years after Saleh rescued Bane, in late July, he came to the United States for the first time to bring three dogs from Lebanon for adoption in the U.S. Pup, Peanut and Michand got to see Bane in his new Baltimore City home.

“It was surreal, really,” he said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Touching him and seeing him; he grew up so big in just three years. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Yoon wasn’t present for their reunification but said it is “wonderful” to hear about the “night and day” differences in dogs like Bane who have been adopted in the U.S.

“If we didn’t believe that what we were doing was necessary, we couldn’t do it. It’s really hard,” she said. “To see something like that, it makes it worth it.”

The organization, which incorporated in fall 2015, started by adopting out about 45 dogs that year. At last count, they’ve adopted out about 410 dogs. The group has five core volunteers who coordinate adoptions, do home visits and transport dogs in the Baltimore area.

Flight attendant Patricia Riska, the group’s president and other founder, had been involved in transporting Malteses in the U.S. prior to the organization’s founding. She connected with another flight attendant who had an established Kuwaiti cat rescue organization on a trip to the country for work, Yoon said. Not seeing a similar outlet for dogs, she couldn’t stop thinking about how she could help.

“She felt a need to do something,” Yoon said.

Yoon got in touch with her at the end of April 2015 after seeing a Facebook post for the first dog Riska tried to adopt out, Humphrey. They met up in Glen Burnie to discuss the possibility of her adopting the dog, and Riska told her a “crazy story” about dogs being abused in Kuwait, asking her to adopt two dogs from the country. Yoon said she’d foster them instead.

She continued fostering dogs until Riska asked her to foster five puppies in summer 2015, and that was too much. So, they started adopting them out to other people — and five months after they had their first meeting in May, they incorporated, Yoon said.

“Both of us did not go into this thinking it would be what it is now,” Yoon said. “It was literally like two ladies trying to find homes for dogs.”

Alissar Shaanin, the founder of Save a Soul Kuwait, an animal rescue located in Kuwait that partners with Wings of Love, said there’s a lot of animal abuse in the country, with dogs getting burned, shot, run over or left outside in temperatures well over 100 degrees.

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The dogs are “treated as more of an object rather than a living being,” said Shaanin, who has lived in Kuwait for about 30 years. “It’s a thing that’s serving a purpose, and then when it doesn’t — when it’s not gone any longer, or it’s not small and cute — it gets tossed out, it gets abandoned, sometimes they try to kill it. It’s sad because that’s the majority.”

The Wings of Love, Kuwait website states that in Kuwaiti culture, pets are not treated as members of the family and when abandoned they are vulnerable to attacks by other abandoned dogs or even people killing them for sport.

All the different factors required for bringing a dog to the U.S. — nursing them back to health, transporting them and processing adoptions — can rack up a hefty price tag. The price varies depending on what condition the dog is in, but injured canine costs can run upward of $10,000, Yoon said in an email. As for airfare, dogs traveling with a human cost the price of a passenger seat and an additional $450 per dog, while dogs traveling alone cost between $1,500 and $1,700, Yoon wrote.

The bulk of the group’s funding comes from adoption fees, which range from $400 to $500 per dog, and the rest comes from fundraising, donations and collaboration with rescue partners, Yoon said, adding that they’ve held restaurant fundraisers where people could spend money and bring items for dogs, as well as paint nights and raffles. Yoon estimated the cost of running Wings of Love activities for one year at about $100,000 if they’re “scraping by.” The organization operates “completely on volunteers and goodwill,” she wrote.

From Kuwait, Lebanon to Towson

Though Wings of Love prefers to find homes for rescue dogs in Baltimore City to make it easier for Riska and Yoon, who live and work in the city, respectively, and are very involved with the adoptions and fosters, some have been adopted or fostered in the Towson area. Yoon estimated 50 to 60 dogs in the Towson area were adopted through Wings of Love, and they had one foster dog in Parkville this summer — Pup — who now has an adoption in the works.

On this trip, one of the dogs Saleh brought, the mixed-breed named Pup, stayed with Donna Fox, 55, of Parkville, who fostered the dog for about five days while her friend who planned to adopt him was away.

Pup, whom Fox estimates is about 7 months old, was beaten so severely as a younger puppy in Lebanon that he couldn’t walk, she said. They worked on manners, calming down around noises and trusting his temporary family while he stayed in her home.

“My son came over, and in the past [Pup] would bark, bark, bark, bark, bark, for like five minutes,” she said. “This time he barked for about two minutes. My son gave him a treat, he sat down, and they were best friends.”

When asked if he got along with her other pets, a dog named Tahini and a cat named Joplin, she said: “Oh my God, they love each other.”

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Some of the dogs have a more permanent stay in the Towson area. George Stavrakis, of Parkville, remembers watching a story on Fox 45 in the fall 2015 about Wings of Love, Kuwait before he got his dog, Marlo, who was one of the first 40 the group brought into the country.

“I kind of just looked over and it’s like, ‘Look at this. That dog’s beautiful. These people in another country are just throwing dogs like that out in the street. I can’t believe that,’” he recalled. “Everything kind of clicked in my head, like I need to write that phone number down really quick.”

Stavrakis, a medical records software analyst for Greater Baltimore Medical Center, said Marlo had been on the streets for at least a month after he was abandoned at about 1 year old,. He had been considered a feral dog, he said.

“Oh my gosh, if we don’t tell people [that Marlo had been considered a feral dog], they’d never believe us,” Stavrakis said. “Even seeing how he acts with us, it’s very hard to believe that he was just taking care of himself on the streets all that time.”

He said he’s been questioned before about why he would adopt a dog from Kuwait when there are already dogs who need homes in the U.S.

“If people just knew what the conditions were for the dogs there that aren’t in homes, it’s so horrible,” he said. “They’re locked in cages out in the desert, they’re tied up with heavy chains out in front of people’s yards. In general what [Wings of Love, Kuwait is] doing is very important to me, personally. It’s just good to see people put that kind of effort into saving a life.”

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