Of course the Germans have a word for it: Willkommenskultur. It translates to “welcome culture,” and though it was coined a few years ago by politicians who wanted to encourage skilled migrants to move to Germany, it’s come to represent German generosity in the face of the refugee wave. While other European governments tightened border controls, Germany—having recorded 200,000 migrant arrivals in all of 2014—opened its doors to more than 270,000 asylum seekers in September alone, according to the interior minister of the southern state of Bavaria. At train stations, well-wishers greeted refugees with applause. The refugees returned the cheers—after sinking boats and barbed-wire fences, they had finally found their refuge.
Germany’s response hasn’t been perfect—waiting times for registering asylum seekers have been long, forcing some to sleep on the streets, still dreaming of a better life. And conservative parts of the country—especially in the east—have been less welcoming, with protests against migrants. But much of the country has followed the example of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said on Sept. 15: “If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations, then that’s not my country.”
In September, Danish photographer Joakim Eskildsen and I spent time in Berlin with many Syrians and Afghans who had fled their homes. “The people we met were just like you and me, but their homes had been destroyed or their lives had been made impossible,” says Eskildsen, who wanted to put a face to a crisis that has tended to concentrate on depicting refugees during moments of despair on their journeys across Europe.
How those journeys end in the promised land of Germany seems to depend a lot on luck – how quickly their asylum applications is processed, if they are separated from their families, and whether they manage to find a new network of friends in Germany.
The government has often seemed overwhelmed by the influx – but charities and volunteers have stepped up, proud to be part of a grassroots movement keeping the welcome machine running for the estimated 1 million asylum seekers that Germany will receive this year. Shelters are so full of clothes and toy donations that they have had to turn people away.
“What is remarkable is that it is ordinary people who act independently and organize themselves to help, teach and offer assistance to the newcomers,” says Eskildsen. There are cooking classes, sports matches and ‘buddy projects’ all set up to help newcomers feel part of German society more quickly. And across the county, ordinary Germans have opened their homes to strangers fleeing violence far beyond Europe’s borders.
“It has widened our horizons so much,” says Judith Roëll, who has been hosting Syrian refugee Abdel Rhman Alali in her family home in the suburbs of Berlin since March. “We’ve learned so much about Syria, about another culture. And it’s great for Germans to see Abdel taking our children swimming or on bike rides.” Like many others hosting refugees, Roëll believes the more people that interact with the newcomers, the more tolerant German society at large becomes.
Not all newcomers are so lucky and Eskildsen was keen to capture a variety of living situations – refugees in temporary shelters, permanent camps, their own apartments and in the homes of German families. But wherever we went, we were amazed by the hospitality of both travelers and hosts, who always offered us food, tea and coffee. One young man, Muhammad Haj Ali, had even baked us traditional Syrian pastries.
Above all, people were generous with their time – something particularly valuable because Eskildsen was shooting on film, as he has done for nearly thirty years. That medium makes it all the more important to spend time with subjects to capture them at their most relaxed, natural moments: learning German; around the dinner table; outside in the September sunshine.
“It may seem like this crisis is ripping the continent apart,” says Tim Florian Horn, a Berliner who took in an Afghan family this summer. “But giving shelter to people who need help—that’s the true meaning of a united Europe.” A refugee crisis that has brought out ugliness in other parts of Europe is so far revealing the best of Germany.
Joakim Eskildsen is a Danish art photographer.
Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s Deputy Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise.
Naina Bajekal is a reporter for TIME based in London. Follow her on Twitter @naina_bajekal.