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Portugal’s unemployed seek support from each other

With unemployment at a record 15 percent and rising, more and more Portuguese are turning to support groups to help them navigate their frightening — and indefinite — period of joblessness.

“Here, I can share my sorrows without feeling judged,” Ana Sofia, a young teacher who has been out of work for almost a year, said at recent support group meeting hosted by a Jesuit group in the capital Lisbon.

Like other European Union nations including Greece, Spain and Italy, Portugal is struggling against a double-whammy of government spending cuts and mass layoffs as it tries to tame its debt crisis.

“My family and friends are still working, so I don’t feel comfortable talking with them about my problems,” added Ana Sofia who, like several members of her group, asked her full name not be used because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

The Catholic organisation first created a job-seeker support group in April, with the aim of getting another 15 or 20 off the ground by the end of the year. After just a few months, 18 are up and running.

The stated goal is to create “trusting relationships to cross the desert together” and the dozen or so group members are encouraged to share experiences.

“It’s mostly about mental support to counter isolation and depression,” said meeting leader Cristina Cortes, who quit her job in financial world to focus on psychology and life-coaching.

Unemployment in Portugal, which is carrying out austerity policies under a 78-billion-euro European Union-International Monetary Fund bailout, rose to a record 15 percent in the second quarter, meaning 830,000 people are now looking for work, compared to 440,000 at the end of 2008.

The Portuguese government has removed job protection rules. This could result in unemployment rising higher still, but the measure is aimed at eventually improving competitiveness.

Young people have been hit especially hard, with unemployment at 35.5 percent for those aged 15 to 24.

— “Very difficult times” —

In the rundown Setubal neighbourhood, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Lisbon, a group organised by the Agir Hoje (Act Today) foundation meets weekly to offer tips on updating professional resumes and setting out realistic objectives.

Filomena, 47, said she has lived through “very difficult times” since October, when her employer went bankrupt while owing her several months pay.

“This group is helping me see things in a less negative light”, said the former clothes shop assistant, who is struggling to raise her two teenaged daughters on just 427 euros ($525) monthly unemployment benefit.

Another group member, Mario, stamps his feet impatiently and interrupts the meeting to say he has scored an interview for a temporary position at a hotel.

“The despair is such that even the slightest opportunity causes great excitement,” the 28-year-old ex-construction driver says. His is one of most heavy-hit industries.

The non-profit group Dress For Success is taking a different approach. It provides smart clothes to women job seekers ahead of job interviews.

“Among the 100 or so women who have called on us, a quarter of them found a job,” the director Fernanda Machado said.

“This isn’t only because of the clothes. We believe we can make a difference for each woman’s self-image, her motivation and her self-esteem.”

Thirty-year-old Beatriz Mota, who returned from a volunteer stint in Bolivia a year ago, remains without work and lives with her family.

“When I returned to Portugal, I wanted to start over, but I had no clothes in my luggage,” said the young woman as she tried on a beige linen jacket.

It was her second trip to the Lisbon-based organisation.

“I have a new interview and, just like the first time I came, I want to get a little extra confidence and keep my spirits up,” she said.