Teen growing up without exiled parents

Published December 23, 2008 8:21 pm
Deported » He's in Green River, mom and dad in India .
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Kunal Sah keeps a stiff upper lip. He has to.

When the 15-year-old's parents were deported more than two years ago, he knew it was going to be tough.

And it has been.

The Green River High School sophomore -- who was born in America and is an only child -- said he's adjusted to living with his uncle and aunt, while his parents, Ken and Sarita Sah, are half a world away in New Delhi.

"I'm getting used to them not being here," he said as the holidays approached. "It's all right."

Still, his eyes well up when he talks to his mother on the telephone.

And Sarita's voice is filled with emotion, too.

"We are missing our home and our son," she said from half a world away. "We are missing each and every one of his moments."

They haven't watched him participate in school activities and they missed seeing their 13-year-old lose his baby fat and grow to a handsome young man who stands a shade under 6 feet.

After 16 years legally in the U.S., Ken and Sarita lost their immigration battle to stay in this country. They returned to India, but Kunal stayed behind to finish his education.

"We are making a sacrifice and he is making a sacrifice," Sarita said.

That cost isn't lost on Kunal. He's a straight-A student who twice represented Utah at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. He dreams of going to Harvard University and becoming a physician.

Although Kunal can visit his parents in India -- which he plans to do in February -- they cannot obtain a visa to come here -- even for a week or two.

"We would like to visit. That would be fine," Sarita said. "I would come back right now, if I could."

Kunal's life is divided into two parts: By day, he is just another kid at school. He mixes easily with other students and goes by the nickname, Ku (pronounced Koo).

Green River Principal Nolan Johnson gives Kunal favorable marks.

"He's a good student and gets along with everyone quite well," Johnson said. "His father calls me every few months to make sure he's on track."

Kunal loves basketball and plays for the school's junior varsity team. During a recent game he was cheered on by classmates Sarah Swalberg, Cady Mecham, Melissa Antillon and Megan Hatt.

"Shoot it, Ku" one called out.

After the game, Kunal joked around with his buddies Adam Steuer and Caleb White. They kicked around the notion of hitting Ray's Tavern for cheeseburgers.

Kunal gets a lot of support from folks in this small southern Utah town, said Adam's mother, Julie Steuer.

"A lot is riding on his shoulders. But he handles it well," she said.

When the game is over, for Kunal it's back to the Ramada Inn -- his parents built and still own the motel -- where he lives. There he studies and works under the watchful eye of his uncle, D.C. Prasad, a legal U.S. resident.

"We are settling down, slowly, slowly," Prasad said. "Kunal's parents are settling down, too. They have a house [in New Delhi] and a small job."

Ken and Sarita still hope to return to the United States. Their best shot right now, according to their Salt Lake City-based attorney, Steve Laurence, won't be until Kunal turns 21. At that time, he can sponsor his parents' residency.

That's six years away and a bitter pill for Ken.

"In our mind, since we lived in the U.S.A. for so long, that is our home," he said from New Delhi. "I'm waiting for the day, the day in the future, when we will come home."

Although aides to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch helped the Sahs navigate the immigration system, the senator stopped short of sponsoring legislation to allow them to stay.

But Ken still prays for some miracle to bring his family together.

"I'm hoping and dreaming every day, with the new president, that someone might pay attention to our case and help us out."

Until then, Kunal says he will play basketball, work at the motel, get good grades and keep Harvard and his parents in his dreams.

"When I am 21, I will sponsor them," he said matter-of-factly. "And they will come back."

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After 10 years, asylum was denied

Ken Sah came to Seattle from India in 1992 on a student visa. One year later, his wife, Sarita, joined him. The pair applied for asylum based on religious persecution from area Muslims due to their Hindu beliefs. They moved to Green River and bought a small motel. Later, they built the Ramada Inn. The couple waited for an immigration hearing for almost 10 years. The Sahs would have been granted automatic asylum after that period. But three weeks shy of the 10-year window, a federal immigration hearing officer denied their request.

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