Svalbard, land of bear and second chances by Francesca Mazzoni


The wind blows strongly, at times it almost seems to howl, and the temperature now reaches -25°. “Sukkertoppen, Gruvfjellet, Trollsteinen”: I unsuccessfully try to spell out the Norwegian names of the soft mountains surrounding me, dotted with dusty abandoned mines and rusted wagons. Longyearbyen was founded in 1906 as a coal mining village. I keep walking and discover a Thai grocery store. Not surprising. The town is a somewhat successful experiment in multiculturalism, home to two thousand five hundred inhabitants from more than fifty nations. Open borders and no visas. The only requirements? Good physical fitness, a home and a secure job to support yourself. Provided they can withstand the cold and a healthy dose of isolation, anyone has an opportunity for a new start.

This is what happened to Omid Abolhasani, thirty-nine years old, and barista at Fruene, one of the best cafés in town, where I warm up with a hot soup. “I am Kurdish and from Iran. In 2008, together with my family, I came to Norway as a refugee. But the authorities rejected my application for political asylum twice and finally deported me”. And so Omid chose to move so far north, to Svalbard, 1000 kilometres from the North Pole, leaving his loved ones behind. “I knew that a completely different life awaited me and  I would not be able to return to the continent for a long time. The first three months were very hard. But then I finally found peace and freedom”. Svalbard, land of polar bears, northern lights and second chances.

Photography for kind concession of Ottavio Giannella

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