ZURICH (Reuters Life!) - When Kavithas Jeyabalan looks out at the snowy hills surrounding his workshop in the Swiss Alps, his work is dotted on the slopes all around him.
The Sri Lankan-born carpenter followed in his father’s footsteps in his choice of work, but his highly sought after handcrafted traditional Swiss sledges are a far cry from the kind of woodwork he might have done had he stayed in Sri Lanka.
Jeyabalan — who has been making traditional Swiss sledges for more than a dozen years in the tiny village of Peist in the Schanfigger valley of southeast Switzerland — is one example of immigrants adopting the Swiss way of life in a country where the issue of integration has become political dynamite.
“There are not so many dark-skinned people around who build sledges,” Jeyabalan, or Kavi as he is known in the area, told Reuters. “When I go to watch my kids play hockey, people say: ‘Look there is the man who makes the sledges’”.
Mountainous Switzerland has always prided itself on its independence, remained uninterested in joining the surrounding European Union and been reluctant to award citizenship, work and residence rights to outsiders.
On Sunday, Swiss voters will decide whether to extend the access of EU citizens to the Swiss labour market, an issue which has highlighted much wider anxiety over immigrant labour and possible job losses for native Swiss.
The vote has been overshadowed by inflammatory rhetoric and publicity from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which often uses controversial imagery that has been branded racist by some. Its current campaign for the referendum depicts three black ravens picking at a map of Switzerland.
Jeyabalan, who is a Tamil and runs his own company, has been a Swiss citizen for more than a decade. He arrived in Switzerland at the beginning of winter in 1984, aged 20, after fleeing Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war.
He has worked hard to integrate into Swiss society, learning Swiss-German to perfection, understanding the customs and of course, preserving a tradition that reaches back into the childhood heart of every Swiss whose ever whizzed down a mountain on a sledge.
“When I speak on the phone, people would never know that I am from Sri Lanka,” he said, adding his command of the language often promptly stops any racist comments.
After joining his brother in Chur, Jeyabalan found a job as a carpenter in the nearby ski resort of Arosa.
“There was a lot of snow and this was very new for me. The whole climate was very different. The temperature difference was huge. It was very cold and I was not used to it,” he said.
Many of Jeyabalan’s customers today come from Arosa and he has worked hard to build up contacts with the young and old to become a fixture in the community.
“My former boss gave me the job originally for two or three months, but I stayed with him for eight or nine years,” he said.
During this time, Jeyabalan learned how to build the so-called Arosa sledges, which he later modified to create his own version — the Schanfigger sledge.
“We are always trying to improve the sledges. It takes a lot of know-how to make them so that they travel fast and straight and that there are not too many accidents,” Jeyabalan said.
The sledges, which cost 490 Swiss francs ($421.3) for a two-seater and take some 10 hours to make, are sought after by both locals and tourists and Jeyabalan takes pride in the many examples careering down the slopes nearby.
He only makes about 50 sledges a year from local ash wood.
“I don’t want to turn our sledges into a mass product. Quality is the priority,” Jeyabalan said. “In Switzerland, people live for quality.”
Jeyabalan said he has yet to find a successor to hand down his skills to.
“Hardly anyone is making these sledges anymore. They just want to make a profit.”
Additional reporting by Arnd Wiegmann in Peist