Syrian musician and his dog reunited after journey to safety in Belgium
Stroll through Saint-Gilles, a vibrant southern district of Brussels famed for its Art Nouveau architecture and relaxed, artsy atmosphere, and you’ll find plenty of places to grab a coffee. But there’s only one coffee shop named after a dog.
Stella, a friendly White Shepherd who greets customers at the door and whose image has become the shop’s logo, belongs to Syrian musician Bassel Abou Fakher. In the seven years since Bassel fled the conflict in Syria and came to Belgium, he is thriving, having made four solo music albums and recently opening Stella coffee shop with his friends.
The specialty coffee shop wins plaudits not only for friendly service and excellent coffee, but also for its star attraction. “Come for Stella, stay for the coffee,” wrote one of many admiring reviewers online.
“Stella is my dog, but she’s also my best friend,” says Bassel of his four-legged companion, who is also the hero of a children’s book.
Now aged 25, Bassel has triumphed in building a new life as an entrepreneur, café co-owner and musician. But when he first arrived, a crucial part of his life was missing: Stella.
She first came into Bassel’s life as a small white pup when he was a child of 12 living in Damascus. Stella was just 40 days old, and the two comforted each other as they drifted off to sleep at night.
But just a year later, conflict broke out and Stella trembled at the sound of exploding bombs. When his parents were too terrified to go outside even to buy food, Bassel still took her for walks.
In 2015, Bassel fled his home and the violence in Damascus to seek safety in Belgium. His mother and sister also fled and later found safety in Ireland and Germany, but his father stayed behind to care for Bassel’s grandmother.
Reluctantly, Bassel left Stella behind too. He was forced to undertake a hazardous journey through Lebanon and Turkey, followed by a sea journey to Greece in a rubber dinghy, making it impossible to bring his dog along.
Fleeing war, Bassel says, means “losing identity and not knowing who you are anymore.’’ He describes his journey – involving smugglers, long walks across unfamiliar terrain, and several train trips – in the most laconic terms: “everything was difficult.”
A few months after his arrival in Brussels, he was taken in by a big-hearted Belgian family who, in the 18 months he lived with them, helped him feel at home and integrate into Belgian life.
“For me, the most important thing that made me feel safe was creating that circle of trust between people, a circle of friends and people that supported me, and I supported them back,” Bassel says.
His hosts, Joannes Vandermeulen and Ann Hoste, could see how badly Bassel missed Stella, so they hatched a plan to spirit the dog out of Syria. With the help of a daring taxi driver, Stella made it from Damascus to Beirut, where Joannes met her, made sure she had all the correct papers, and coaxed her into a crate for her journey to Brussels in the cargo hold of a commercial plane.
“It was extremely difficult to imagine what it would take to bring a dog from Beirut through Istanbul to Brussels. It was very complex,” Joannes explains. “[Stella] almost died on the way [when she got] stuck with her collar in the cage. At the end, I was so tired and I was so emotional.”
Despite the challenges, Joannes was determined to see the mission through.
“Helping people motivates you. It's what makes the human species so successful – that we love to help each other most of the time.”
After all that trauma, Stella needed time to settle into her new life. But Bassel felt his life was complete again. Their story was taken up by a prominent author, Deborah Blumenthal, whose children’s book “Saving Stella: A Dog’s Dramatic Escape from War” features charming illustrations by Syrian illustrator Nadine Kaadan, who now lives in London. The book was hailed by the respected Kirkus Reviews as “an unusual refugee story that may open doors for empathy.”
Surrounded by artists, Bassel, who had played the cello in Syria since the age of seven, rediscovered his love of music. Recording under the name Linear Minds, he has worked on five collaborations with composers as a sound designer and recorded four solo albums. He describes his music as a fusion of electronica and dance music, darkly melodic with driving bass lines.
“People always say I’m super driven, always working,” he laughs. “Never stop. In French they call me ‘la machine’. I think when you're passionate about something, you wake up happily to do it.”
With two friends, he opened the corner coffee shop – “a place where we constantly meet new people, talking to them, getting to know their lives a little bit.”
He wanted to enfold both locals and newcomers in the warm embrace Belgium had extended to him. “We created this neighbourhood feel, where the people who come, they come to see us. They come to talk to us. We love to get to interact, get to know them. It’s a community.”
A community headed by a big fluffy White Shepherd called Stella.
Additional reporting and writing by Nina Daelemans and Maeve Patterson.