Green River boy to represent Utah at National Spelling Bee - while parents deported to India
Posted: 11:57 AM- GREEN RIVER - How do you spell "perseverance?"
When 13-year-old Kunal Sah stands before television cameras May 30-31 to represent Utah - for the second time - at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., his parents won't be there with him.
Ken and Sarita Sah were deported back to India last July after 16 years residing legally in this country. They ultimately lost their battle to remain under tough U.S. immigration regulations in the post- 9/11 atmosphere.
Kunal was born in the United States and, as such, is a citizen. He moved with his folks to this central Utah town 10 years ago when they bought the Budget Inn motel here. With hard work, Ken and Sarita in 2001 then built the 46-room Ramada Inn nearby.
In Kunal's bedroom at the Ramada, decorated with trophies from other spelling bees and a huge Webster's dictionary, he finds New Delhi on a globe. It's almost exactly halfway around the world, he explains.
"If I knew when they would be able to come back, I would be relieved. But . . ."
The fact is, nobody knows when his parents will be allowed back in the United States - even for a visit.
According to the Sah's Salt Lake City immigration attorney, Steven Laurence, it's all quite uncertain.
Although Sen. Orrin Hatch's office helped the Sahs navigate the complexities of immigration regulations, the senator stopped short of sponsoring legislation that would circumvent those legalities.
"They have a compelling case," says Heather Barney, the senator's spokeswoman. "But special legislation is for rare and unusual cases."
That's something the folks in Emery County find hard to believe, according to Patsy Stoddard, the editor of the Emery County Progress newspaper. She describes Ken and Sarita as model citizens.
"Our governor went to India to bring back a baby," she says. "And yet here is a family torn apart, and nobody is doing anything about it."
The separation is a daily challenge for everyone in Kunal's family, not least his uncle, D.C. Prasad, a legal U.S. resident.
Before Ken and Sarita were deported, Prasad ran the Budget Inn for his brother. Now, he must operate both motels and watch over his 13-year-old nephew.
"It's a bad situation, but what can you do?" he laments. "We just have to make Kunal understand that we don't have any options right now."
As a 12-year-old, Kunal traveled to India with his parents when they were forced out last summer. But once there, he became ill and had to be hospitalized. Upon his return to the United States to begin eighth grade, the straight-A student struggled to get Cs.
"It was really hard on him when he went to India and then returned," said Kaye Nelson, who teaches English at the small Green River High School, where grades seven through 12 are combined under one roof.
"He saw a home that wasn't his. It was, 'I am here and they are there.' He was missing his parents."
Gradually, Kunal steeled himself and now is hitting straight-As again. He jokes and smiles easily as he wends through school corridors with his classmates, who sometimes call him the "walking dictionary."
In sixth-period computer class, he gives helpful hints to his classmates after he burned through the workshop assignment, typing 65 words per minute. Later, in seventh-period P.E., he shoots hoops with the other eighth-grade boys and appears like any other kid.
But when the final bell rings, Kunal's world shifts. Back at the Ramada, he helps his uncle take reservations over the phone, while pop-Indian music plays in the background.
Kunal is fluent in Hindi and loves Indian comedies. His favorite American movie is "Akeelah and the Bee," a drama about a young girl and a spelling bee.
While his classmates enjoy the spring-like weather- riding bicycles, hiking, or just messing around - Kunal is learning the hotel business and studying.
"Mainly, I just want to finish school in this country. I want to go to Harvard," he offers. "My classmates have more freedom than I do. But I spend my time educationally and want to gain more knowledge."
But Kunal's upper lip isn't as stiff as he puts on, his uncle notes. The teenager despairs from time to time and calls his parents often.
New Delhi is 12 time zones ahead of Green River. And Kunal isn't the only one with a heavy load.
In a telephone interview, Ken Sah is matter-of-fact.
"It's very tough. He calls every day, and he cries," he says of his son.
"He needs to live with his parents. But he doesn't have that. We try to make him feel better and stronger."
Ken and Sarita live in a kind of limbo, moving from the home of one relative to another, unable to start new lives with their son and businesses in America, and hoping against hope that some kind of miracle will lift them from desolation.
"You have millions of [undocumented] people who have broken the law, and no one is forcing them out [of the U.S.]," Ken says. "But I followed the law - and this is my reward for being honest."
For Kunal, it's practically impossible to understand why things are the way they are.
"When I am missing them, I mostly just go to spelling study," he says.
How do you spell "heartache?"