Residents in Geel have been taking in mentally ill strangers for hundreds of years. Now academics are looking to the small Flemish town for social care ideas

Maria Lenaerts was seven years old when she came home from school one day to find a stranger at the kitchen table. It was September 1942 in Nazi-occupied Belgium.

The young man looked afraid. He did not say a word to her. “He was sitting at the table like this,” she recalls, hiding her head in her arms. “He didn’t understand anything.”

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