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'They asked me 'How are you really up here?' It is something no one else has done for a long time.

Khanittha Sinpru 27, is the first representative from Thailand elected to the Longyearbyen Community Council. FOTO: Geir Barstein

Khanittha makes history:

'They asked me 'How are you really up here?' It is something no one else has done for a long time."

Khanittha Sinpru 27, is the first representative from Thailand elected to the Longyearbyen Community Council.

"It was a shock to be elected," said Sinpru, a Conservative Party member who works at the head server at Spitsbergen Hotel.

"I did not quite know what I was going to do, but now we have had a meeting and it feels really good," she said. "This is something I want to do."

This year's election was historic: for the first time a representative from Thailand, the largest non-Norwegian population group in Longyearbyen, was elected to the local council.

"I will be a representative for all the foreigners here," said Sinpru, who repeatedly has gone through hardships as a member of that constituency. "I know what it's like to be in that situation and can tell them how things work. I can make life easier for them up here."

"I wanted to study on the mainland to become a nurse, but was not allowed," she said. "Accepting foreigners from Svalbard was something new for them and they refused. As a foreigner up here, life goes on all the time in an uncertain way."

Svalbard is part of Norway, yet in a unique position when it comes to foreigners. Neither immigration laws nor the Social Services Act apply in the archipelago, and membership in the country's social welfare system (if they work for a Norwegian employer) is terminated one month after their employment ends.

Among her most harrowing experiences, Sinpru was eight months pregnant and suddenly lost her childbirth coverage, due to confusion and ambiguities within the government.

"It was a shocking message," she said. "Luckily they cleaned up the matter within a week's time."

After the election, the local Conservative Party was criticized for a platform that pledged to seek citizenship for children born to foreigners in Svalbard, as well as foreigners who have long been residents in the archipelago.

"It was said that all foreigners who voted Conservative had been tricked," Sinpru said. "But the point is that there are many foreigners who have lived here a long time and who do not dare stand up and say what they really mean. They think 'I'm not Norwegian and have no right to do anything.'"

"So the Conservatives came to me and asked: 'How are you really up here? Is there something you miss or want to address to make the community better?' There is no one else who has asked us about that for a long time," said Sinpru, visibly touched as she wiped away tears.

It's been 13 years since she moved to Longyearbyen from Thailand and a Catholic boarding school. During the first council meeting in November, it was dark, cold and miserably stormy outside.

"It took a long time to get used to the climate, a new language and a new society," Sinpru said.

"But now this is my home. I've lived half my life here, and now I want to be with and manage to make the city better. It feels good."

Translated by Mark Sabbatini

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