Stella is six years old, but she’s wagging her tail and jumping around with the enthusiasm of a pup. In the Brussels apartment of her owner, Bassel Abu Fakher, there’s a spacious balcony where she can run around a bit, but it can’t compete with the freedom of the city’s parks outside the door. The sun is shining and there are other dogs racing around on the grass of the botanical garden in the city center. Stella rushes from one encounter to the next. It’s a carefree scene, until a plane flies over. Then, Stella cowers abruptly and makes a heart-wrenching, frightening sound.
Bassel’s face tightens as he hugs his dog and tries to comfort her. “Stella is traumatized,” he says sadly. “It’s just like with humans: a dog that grows up with war and bombs exploding everywhere carries that stuff around for the rest of her life.”
The story of Bassel and Stella reads like a scenario for a Hollywood movie. A year ago, they were living in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Bassel, who began playing the cello at an early age, was in the Damascus Conservatory, one of the country’s most prestigious music education institutes; he also co-founded the Qotob Project to bring musicians together. Because of the war, their neighborhood became the target of bombs and fighting. Bassel tried to keep living his life in a normal way; he didn’t want to leave Stella and his parents behind. “I kept walking Stella around the block, even though that was very dangerous,” he says.
In 2011, the war started in Syria. Millions of people fled and ended up in Turkey, Lebanon and Europe. We don’t know much about the consequences for their pets; those stories are rarely told. Dogs have an even harder time than people comprehending the concept of war. But for Stella, life had suddenly become a living hell.
One day, a big bomb exploded only a few blocks from Bassel’s home. All the windows in the neighborhood were shattered. “Since that day, Stella is scared of airplanes,” Bassel explains. She had heard the fighter jet and now associates the sound of flight engines with the fears she had that day.
For Bassel, the situation in his country finally became too dangerous. “I witnessed multiple explosions from close by,” he says. He had to flee for his own safety, but that meant he had to leave his dear dog behind. “My heart broke. I knew I couldn’t take Stella along with me.” So they said goodbye and Bassel asked his mother to take good care of her. He fled via Turkey across the treacherous Mediterranean, which has become a sea grave for thousands of Syrian refugees like Bassel. The rubber dinghy was fully loaded with people, and Bassel got really scared, but he reached Europe safely. “Stella could have never survived that trip,” he says.
Bassel had good contacts in Belgium. He could walk directly from the Brussels-South railway station to his temporary home, where he was sheltered by Joannes Vandermeulen, a Belgian who is concerned with the fate of refugees. “We took in a couple of refugees, but Stella wasn’t with them at that time,” says Vandermeulen.
After a couple of weeks, Bassel heard troubling news about Stella. “She was languishing; she already had a bad relationship with my father, and it got worse,” says Bassel. “My father didn’t walk her, and she got the leftovers of his greasy food.”
When Vandermeulen heard about Stella, he offered to help. “I’m kind of an adventurer; I proposed to bring Stella to Belgium.” What sounded like a crazy idea quickly became serious. Bassel would organize the first part of Stella’s trip, from Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon; then, Vandermeulen would bring her from Beirut to Brussels.
A friend of Bassel took Stella with him in his car past tens of checkpoints; Stella was scared to death in the trunk of the car. They drove on a road less than two miles from the front line with the Islamic State. The road was dangerous, but eventually, they reached the airport, and Vandermeulen picked her up.
“So many things went wrong,” says Vandermeulen with a smile. “I thought it wouldn’t work out more than once.” When he met Stella, she was very upset. She needed a sleeping pill before being loaded into the plane’s cargo area, but she didn’t want to eat anything. “We had to force her to take the pill, but she threw up. It’s a miracle she didn’t go mad,” says Vandermeulen.