Angelica Carr held a spare key to her family's upscale London home, ready to press it into the palm of a stranger she had never met.
For three weeks last fall, Carr's family had wondered if a new addition to their household would ever move in. The answer came without warning, just as the family was scattered in all directions on a Friday evening.
Zaher, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee, would be walking through their front door in 45 minutes.
Carr runs her own business showing companies the value of cultural diversity. But that day she would bring a few of those techniques home to her family. Carr rushed to stock the kitchen shelves with food that meets halal standards and extra pita bread. With the seasoned reflexes of a mother of three, Carr tracked down her teenagers and swooped up her 5-year-old as she shot off a frantic call to her husband.
"It's happening," she told him. "Now!"
Throughout Western Europe — from the United Kingdom to Belgium, Germany and France — ordinary citizens are opening their hearts and even their homes to the droves of displaced refugees from around the world. An unprecedented 21.3 million people have fled their home countries in the last year. The massive migration wave has spilled into Europe, igniting a fierce debate over the West's role in addressing the crisis. Unable to find work and often turned away by wary landlords, thousands of refugees are left stranded in the streets of Europe.
Turned off by calls to close the borders, a precious few citizens are jumping to the opposite extreme, willing to open up their lives to those in need of shelter. Some seek out charities as a guiding light for goodwill. Others act completely on their own, trusting a gut feeling that they are doing what is right. Together they create a small antidote to counteract the stories of immeasurable human suffering around the world.
"I needed to understand. Looking at it from the perspective from the refugees themselves."– Angelica Carr, London
As Carr's family welcomed Zaher in London, Faysel, a 23-year-old refugee from Iraq, was just getting settled with his new family in Belgium.
He first started opening up just before dinner each night while Christine Huygens leaned over the kitchen stove, her back to him as she cooked the family's meal. Six failed attempts to flee Iraq left lasting scars, trauma that would resurface at unpredictable times. He would talk himself hoarse some days, recalling the bombs that destroyed his childhood home and turned his neighborhood upside down. He missed his little sister, who was just 14. Sometimes he gave up trying to hold back his tears.
Faysel seemed fragile and small when Huygens and her partner, Els, first found him at the makeshift refugee camp set up in the heart of Brussels, outside the municipal building that processed applications for asylum. They had decided earlier that Sunday morning, over coffee and the local newspaper, that they would volunteer at the kitchen built to feed the temporary residents at the illegal tent city.
The two mothers couldn't shake the image of the young man sitting alone on a bench next to where they served meals. They offered Faysel their phone numbers before they left. Whenever you need anything, just call, they told him.
He texted the next day. The authorities were moving the refugee camp to the other side of Belgium, and Faysel couldn't bear to be separated from the only friends he had left.
"We were really upset because he was so far away," Huygens recalled. "I said right away, 'You can come here.'"
Huygens had seen the outpouring of public fear on television and read about it in the newspaper, but she never imagined it would tarnish her family's view of the refugee she had taken in and viewed as a new son.
Her parents were tight-lipped when they met Faysel the first time. They said their hellos after entering the house, but added little more. Neither dared to ask Faysel any questions or learn about his journey.
Huygens stayed angry at them for weeks.
"They said, ‘You never know. Maybe he's ISIS, and maybe he has bad plans,'" Huygens said. "But if I can't trust my gut feeling anymore, then what's the point of living?"
"I'm a mother. And knowing that children were sleeping in the street was just unbearable to me."– Virginie Spits, Brussels
Behind each story of compassion is a sense of responsibility. Some said they hosted refugees to earn a deeper understanding of a stranger's experience and put a human face to the distant suffering they saw in the news. Others admitted they extended a helping hand, in part, out of anguish.
"I'm ashamed by this refugee crisis, the way Europe is dealing with it, the way my country is dealing with it," said Virginie Spits, who has hosted several different refugee families in her Belgian home. "It was the least we could do."
Applications for asylum in Europe more than doubled between 2014 and 2015, locking nearly 1.3 million people in limbo as they awaited a chance to legally settle down.
No nation stands out more in its rate of accepting refugees than Germany. The country has hosted 61 percent of asylum applicants in the entire European Union since the start of 2016. While neighboring countries sought to limit migration through their borders, German leaders early on dared to test the limits of the public's willingness to take an inclusive approach toward the crisis.
It's a dynamic that many say is ingrained in German culture. For Joachim Frank, whose family took in 16-year-old Afghan refugee Abbas (not his real name) last year, offering someone a stable family life was anchored solidly in his values. The lessons of World War II and the violent history of the region inform the present and future, Frank said, and Germans especially need to reflect on the past.
"We nearly extinguished the whole Jewish community in Europe, and we had a kind of historic guilt. And now we have built up a society on human rights and values, and we have committed to never let things go back," Frank said. "It's our historic responsibility."
Volunteers in Cologne formed a branch of Start With a Friend, a new matchmaking service of sorts that pairs up locals with refugees, in 2016. The organization, founded in Berlin in 2014, provides companionship for new arrivals after they endure a long and dangerous journey. Social stigma and language barriers have made finding work, renting apartments or filing legal forms an excruciating undertaking for many refugees.
Nick Mäuser, a student who has befriended a Syrian refugee, said the program allowed him to help in what small ways he could.
"My responsibility as a human being is to help other human beings," Mäuser said.
The moment Zaher's surroundings started to sink in, standing inside Angelica Carr's London home with her family, the 30-year-old Syrian wasn't ready to accept her offer of a spare key.
He'd gone from sharing a cramped single room with his sister, brother-in-law and nephew, to standing in a luxurious home with high ceilings, where the walls were covered with fine art and a slickly polished piano pushed to the corner windows overlooked the street below. Everything had happened so fast.
No, no, it's fine, Carr coaxed him. Take the key.
"I think especially we in Germany have to think about and think over our history. We nearly extinguished the whole Jewish community in Europe. And we had a kind of historic guilt. And now we have built up a society on human rights and values and we have committed to never let things go back like it did. It’s our historic responsibility."– Joachim Frank, Cologne
Sitting Zaher down on the velvet-soft couch in the living room, under a lush tapestry pinned to the wall, the family would pore over the pages of old-fashioned maps, retracing the steps that brought him to the U.K.
First came the long nights of false imprisonment and torture in Syria. Later, an escape from conscription in an army that had turned on its own people. Zaher now shields his full name and identity to prevent his violent past from catching up to his present.
Zaher first tried the route most Syrian refugees take — smuggled through the Turkish border to await the dangerous journey by boat to Greece. But his ride never came. Instead, his route took him to the other end of the world on a series of flights through Singapore and Indonesia before he finally reunited with his sister in London.
The decision to host Zaher and several more refugees after him seemed like a natural progression for Carr. She had already traveled to Greece and waded along the shores to greet refugees as they arrived in beat-up boats. Her hands shook trying to sling baby carriers onto the bodies of frail mothers and fit their infants' tiny limbs through the straps. A grandmother blew Carr kisses as she wrapped an emergency blanket around the ice-cold feet of the elderly woman's granddaughter.
"I needed to understand, looking at it from the perspective of the refugees themselves," Carr said.
Caught between wanting to provide as much as possible for Zaher and being wary of damaging his pride, Carr had to be sly while trying to buy him new things. She once measured the soles of his worn shoes so she would know his size for new sneakers.
It's a delicate dance that comes up often for many families that host refugees, knowing when to swoop in to help or when to back up and offer space. Always, these families remain aware that they're not entitled to the details of the refugees' harrowing experiences.
"You have no right to their life story," Carr said. "You just have to wait, and if they want to share, they just have to do that."
Editor’s note: The name of the 16-year-old refugee living in Germany has been changed due to concern for his safety. In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption mistakenly stated the hometown of a Syrian refugee. He is originally from Homs, not Damascus. MSNBC and Magnum regret the error.
BIEKE DEPOORTER received her master's degree in photography from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent, Belgium in 2009.
In 2009, she traveled through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway connecting Moscow with the Russian Far East and the Sea of Japan. Along the way she photographed people in whose homes she asked to stay a single night for a series entitled Ou Menya, which won several prizes, including the Magnum Expression Award, and led to a book, published by Lannoo in 2011.
A similar long-term project in the United States in 2010 led to her second book, I Am About to Call It a Day, co-published in 2014 by Edition Patrick Frey and Hannibal.
Currently she is working on her next project, In Between: On the Intimacy of Egyptian Families.
She joined Magnum Photos as a nominee in 2012 and became a full member in 2016.