Cyprus Mail

2013: Riddled with employment guilt

A young couple looking for work at the recent EU jobs fair

By Constantinos Psillides

UNDER normal circumstances, my name shouldn’t be here. I’ve been working for the Cyprus Mail for less than two months, so how can I write about my top story of 2013 when I don’t have a year’s worth of stories to choose from?

But there is a good reason why I opted to write a year ender. It’s personal, but it’s also newsworthy.

On November 20, just days after I started work at the newspaper, the EU Commission offices in Cyprus organised a two-day job fair to inform young Cypriots on job opportunities within the EU and give essential information to anyone looking to move to another country in search for employment.

I was assigned to cover the event, talk to visitors, get some quotes, speak with some representatives and officials. Usual journalistic field work and I’ve done it many times before. You do some background reading, get in touch with the photographer and off you go.

The entrance to the job fair resembled a playground. The Filoxenia Conference Centre in Nicosia, where the event was held, was jam-packed with high-school students, the vast majority of whom saw the visit as an opportunity to skip school and have fun with their friends. And have fun they did.

They took full advantage of any gimmick the organisers had set up, like wall-painting, photo-booth pictures, wheel of fortune lottery and free souvenirs. It took us a while to move through the crowd – it’s not easy making your way through a horde of laughing, screaming teenagers who queue up to have their picture taken wearing a cape and a stormtrooper helmet).

But past the laughs and fooling around was the second half of the job fair, the real part, the place where recruitment agencies and European countries representatives had set up shop.

The vivid, vibrant colours splashed on the walls and on the entrance floor gave their place to the mood-neutral grey. No fancy kiosks here, no edgy, design posters and cutouts. This is a place of business, a place of work. Hopefully.

A sense of familiarity, of a déjà vu came over me as I stood in the middle of the room, watching people shuffling from booth to booth, unsmiling. I couldn’t pinpoint it at the beginning but everything was made clear when I made eye contact with a guy my age who I knew from the unemployment office. He waved, I waved back. Then it dawned to me.

Those sombre expressions, the downcast eyes, the walk of shame from potential employer to potential employer, the barely contained anger and indignation after having been told that if you wanted employment, you would have to work for scraps and that you should be thankful for the opportunity. I didn’t realise it immediately because I was too preoccupied with doing my new job well. But those people were me, only days ago.

Their unemployment horror stories, were my unemployment horror stories, their anxiety plagued me as well. The beaten, unsure, fearful look was one I was all too familiar with, having seen it in my bathroom mirror for almost two years.

A thought struck me. When I was told to cover the event, I didn’t need to ask where it was being held, because I already knew. I had seen the notifications on my Facebook, Twitter and inbox because I subscribed to every single service that informed people on possible employment. I would have been there, among them, enquiring after possible job opportunities in Europe had I not found work only days previously.

“I have been looking for work for the past year.”

“I don’t want to leave my family but I would if I find a job abroad.”

“There’s no work for someone in my field,” were only some of the quotes I got. I lost count of how many times I had said those exact words.

I don’t know if I’m coining a phrase here, but I felt riddled with employment guilt. I wasn’t better than those people. I wasn’t more capable or more diligent than they. I didn’t deserve it more. I was just luckier. Happened to be at the right place at the right time.

I left the fair with a strange mixture of feelings. And try as I might, I couldn’t get a certain picture out of my mind. A young woman searching for a job on one of the computers set up at the fair, with her boyfriend gently hugging her while he set his head on her shoulder. As if he wanted to say “Don’t worry, everything is going to be OK.”

I don’t know if she found what she was looking for. I don’t know if anyone at that job fair did.

I can only hope so, that they have escaped that pit of misery, self-doubt and sadness that is unemployment.

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