While strolling around Saint-Gilles, a bustling area of southern Brussels known for its Art Nouveau architecture and laid-back, artistic vibe, there are numerous coffee shops to choose from.There is, however, only one coffee shop with a canine name.
Stella, a friendly White Shepherd who greets customers at the front door and whose image serves as the store’s logo, is owned by Syrian singer Bassel Abou Fakher.After fleeing Syria’s civil war, Bassel has thrived in Belgium for the past seven years.He has four solo albums to his credit and, most recently, he and his friends opened Stella coffee shop.
The specialized coffee shop has been praised for its star attraction, as well as its friendly service and high-quality coffee.”Come for Stella, stay for the coffee,” one of the many positive online reviews said.
“Stella is my dog, but she’s also my best friend,” Bassel says of his canine companion, who also happens to be the protagonist of a children’s book.Bassel is now 25 years old and has made a new life for himself as an entrepreneur, café co-owner, and musician.However, a significant part of his life—Stella—was missing when he first arrived.
She first appeared in Bassel’s life as a tiny white pup when he was 12 years old and living in Damascus.Stella was only 40 days old, and they cuddled each other as they fell asleep at night.
A year later, however, a fight broke out, and Stella was shaken by the sound of bombs going off.Bassel continued to take her for walks despite his parents’ fear of leaving the house, even to get food.
In 2015, Bassel fled his home and the bloodshed in Damascus for safety in Belgium. His father stayed behind to care for Bassel’s grandmother, while his mother and sister fled and eventually found refuge in Ireland and Germany.
According to Bassel, fleeing war means “losing identity and not knowing who you are anymore.” “Everything was difficult,” he says of his journey, which included smugglers, long walks through unfamiliar terrain, and several train rides.
He was adopted by a loving Belgian family a few months after arriving in Brussels, and they helped him adjust to Belgian culture and feel at home during his 18-month stay with them.
“Creating that circle of trust between people, a circle of friends and people who supported me and I supported them back,” Bassel says.
Because Bassel yearned for Stella, his hosts Joannes Vandermeulen and Ann Hoste devised a plan to smuggle the dog out of Syria.Stella was able to travel from Damascus to Beirut with the help of a brave taxi driver.Joannes met her at the airport, checked her documents, and persuaded her to fly to Brussels in the cargo hold of an airliner.
“It was difficult to imagine what it would take to transport a dog from Beirut to Brussels via Istanbul.””It was extremely complicated,” Joannes explains.”[Stella] almost died on the way when she got stuck in the cage with her collar on.””In the end, I was exhausted and emotional.”
Despite the difficulties, Joannes was determined to complete the task.
“Helping others motivates you.”It’s what makes the human species so successful – that we mostly like to help each other.”
Stella needed time to adjust to her new life after dealing with so much stress. Bassel, on the other hand, believed his life had been restored.Their story was retold by renowned author Deborah Blumenthal, whose young-adult novel “Saving Stella: A Dog’s Dramatic Escape from War” features endearing illustrations by Syrian artist Nadine Kaadan, who now lives in London.Kirkus Reviews praised the book, calling it “an unusual refugee story that may open doors for empathy.”
Bassel, who has been playing the cello since he was seven years old and grew up in a musical family, rediscovers his love of music.Under the alias Linear Minds, he has released four solo albums and worked as a sound designer on five composer collaborations.His work combines electronica and dance music, which he describes as having dark melodies and strong bass lines.”Everyone says I’m super driven and always working,” he laughs.
“We created this neighborhood atmosphere where people come to see us.They have come to speak with us.We enjoy interacting with and getting to know them.It’s a neighborhood.”Stella, a large fluffy White Shepherd, leads the community.
“Never give up.They call me “la machine” in French.”I believe that when you are passionate about something, you wake up excited to do it.”He opened the corner coffee shop with two friends as “a place where we constantly meet new people, talking to them, getting to know their lives a little bit.”He wanted to wrap locals and newcomers in the warm embrace that Belgium had shown him.