Jon Henley is travelling through Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece to hear the human stories behind the European debt crisis. In the industrial town of Huelva, young people talk of leaving the country to find jobs Europe on the breadline: live tour – interactive
Huge thanks to Rona MacKenzie, Emily Bertin and Neill Aldeheri, English teachers in Huelva, who gathered together some of their students for me last night. Huelva is a port and industrial town of some 150,000 people, part of what Rona calls "the real Andalucia, not the tourist one."
Mining has been big business here since Roman times; the minerals giant Rio Tinto was founded here, named after the local river. But in a country stricken by unemployment, particularly among young people, this part of Spain now pretty much props up the list: some 45% of under-25s around here are currently without a job.
Spain was celebrating one of its numerous national holidays on Wednesday; the streets and cafe terraces of Huelva were filled with couples and families out for the evening. It didn't, on the surface, look much like a town that was living a crisis.
"We live outside, we live on the street," said Encarnación Codeseda, an unemployed mother of two. "We can't stay in at home, it's impossible for us. But look around: a while back, everyone would have had three or four coffees, a couple of gin and tonics. Now we have one coffee, and we make it last all evening."
Encarnación gave up work when she had her two children, now aged 12 and 15: "It was more expensive to have them in a creche than for me not to work." Now, 45 and divorced, she lives on about €400 a month benefits "plus whatever my ex-husband decides to give me". Her one consolation is that she no longer has a mortgage to pay on her flat.
"I'd do anything – commercial work, administration, tourism," she says. "But the problem is that it would have to be here in Huelva, because of the children. And there just aren't the jobs here. And even if there were, young people would be taking priority. It's hopeless. People get all this training, all this education, all these internships, and then at the end of it all there's nothing for them to do. Nothing."
Like Encarnación, Dani Martin, 20, took state-funded English lessons last year to bolster his CV. "I've already worked abroad, in Italy for three months, and it's clear to me I won't find a job around here," he said. Dani did manage to find work in a restaurant this summer, but it wasn't a good year – takings at the beach bars are a third of what they used to be – and the owner failed to pay him until he went to the police to file a formal complaint.
In desperation, Dani has started a two-year course to become a chef. "I couldn't survive if I wasn't living with my parents," he said. "I'll certainly have to leave Huelva, probably leave Spain, to find work."
He's certainly not looking for any solution from an "inefficient and out-of-touch" state; the weight of Spanish bureacracy, he says, is enormous. Everything is "too rigid, too inflexible, too difficult, too time-consuming": starting your own business is a gauntlet hardly anyone has the time or means to run. A €5,000 grant generally arrives "just in time for you to go bust".
José Serrano, 32, is also starting a course – funded by a trade union, to train home carers – later this month after being unemployed for nearly a year. "I'm surprised," he said, "that there haven't been riots in Spain. Doctors' surgeries are closing; you have to get on a bus now if you're ill. Electricity, public transport, water costs are soaring. People have to pay for their medicines. Everything has become so much more expensive, and the jobs have dried up."
The only flourishing sector, said Rona and Emily, was English teaching. "Everyone believes that's the only way they'll find decent work," says Rona. "But every week, we come across former students, graduates who had well-paid, full-time work, a decent lifestyle, a family, and who've just lost their job." Right now, said Emily, "no one can see any light at the end of the tunnel".
• If you have a story to tell, know a person I should talk to or live in a place you think I should visit, please contact me: email@example.com, or @jonhenley (the hashtag for this venture is #EuroDebtTales)
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