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For Utah teen, saving the family dream is an uphill battle

Published April 12, 2013 12:58 pm

Nineteen-year-old learns hospitality business the hard way as he keeps the Green River hotel afloat.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Green River • Half a world away in New Delhi, Sarita Sah is sleepless and sick with worry.

In Utah, her 19-year-old son Kunal Sah gets violently ill and, so far, doctors don't know why.

Sarita would rush to her son's aid if she could. But seven years ago, she and her husband, Ken Sah, lost their battle with immigration authorities and could not remain in the United States. And Kunal, who is a U.S. citizen by birth, must remain in Green River to operate the family's hotel. It represents not only everything Ken and Sarita have worked for, but their future hopes and dreams, as well.

"We have one son in the entire world and we have no one else," Sarita said in a recent telephone interview from India. "Kunal's health is not good. And my health is not good. How can a boy run that business? The pressure is making him sick."

The Sahs continue to pray that someone — perhaps a member of Utah's congressional delegation — will intervene on their behalf so they can return. Such pleas, however, have gone unanswered and that hope is dimming.

Unlike an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, the Sahs were determined to work within U.S. immigration laws. They believe they have paid a high price for that decision, and don't fully understand why, as taxpayers who also created jobs, they are being so harshly punished.

Their desperate plight began about 10 years ago, when strict post 9/11 immigration rules and regulations caught up with them. After residing legally in the United States for well over a decade, while building a life and business here, an immigration judge made a swift ruling that expelled them.

They appealed and lost.

Kunal, then age 12, remained in Green River with an uncle, D.C. Prasad, because his parents insisted he get an American education. A straight-A student, Kunal represented Utah at the 2006 and 2007 National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., and dreamed of becoming a surgeon.

These days, he's stuck behind the desk at the Green River Ramada Inn on something close to a 24-7 schedule. He hasn't been to college and no longer wants to be a doctor. He's thinking of a time, about 18 months down the road, when he will become 21 and can sponsor his parents' return to the United States. It's unclear how long that could take to complete, but it would open a new and brighter chapter for the family.

For Kunal, it could mean an escape to a different life, perhaps away from Green River. Although he likes to dream big, his future these days remains somewhat undefined. Nonetheless, it looms large somewhere over the horizon where things, he imagines, will be easy and freewheeling.

"They'll come back and I don't know what life will be like or what to expect," he said. "When they come back, I will go to a college campus somewhere. That's the plan."

The question is, can he make it until then? About three times a week, pain explodes in his head without warning. Within minutes, he's vomiting. And the aftermath leaves him wiped out. Symptoms began last summer and increasingly got worse. He finally went to specialists in Salt Lake City in February and awaits a diagnosis.

Special help • Luckily, Kunal is not alone in this. His girlfriend, Cassandra Hawkinson, fearing for his health, dropped out of Dixie State University several months ago to help him run the Ramada. The pair adopted a couple of dogs — Rohan, a German shepherd; and Rani, a chocolate Lab.

"When she started helping me out here, it stopped me from going insane," Kunal said. "I didn't have anybody for the longest time."

Lounging in the resident's quarters at the Ramada, watching Bollywood movies with their four-legged friends, things seem good. But then the buzzer sounds and it's time to check in another guest. The scenario repeats itself until about 1 a.m.

"I think it helps him having me around. He doesn't seem so stressed," Cassandra said after Kunal leaves for the front desk. "I think he'll be able to make it. He's been able to understand the business as time has gone on, and he's learned from his mistakes."

And there have been mistakes.

After working tirelessly for 16 years to first buy the small Budget Motel in Green River and eventually build the Ramada, Ken Sah feared that returning to India could cost everything he and Sarita had worked toward.

When Prasad, Ken's brother, left Green River for India 17 months ago to be with his new wife, the weight of running the hotel fell to then-18-year-old Kunal. He had grown up in the motel business, and Ken and Sarita had little choice but to put their faith and future in their son's hands.

Things seemed to be going well enough until September when the bank called Kunal to say the Ramada had not made a mortgage payment since May and must remit $370,000 or lose the property.

To that point, Kunal explained, the payments had been automatically withdrawn from the Ramada's account.

"Oh man, those guys took the motel. I didn't know what would happen or where to go," Kunal recalled. The startling events confused and angered him. "Why didn't they tell me back in May?"

Eight thousand miles away in New Delhi, Ken was in a panic. His worst nightmare was coming true. In October, the bank took possession of the Ramada, and Kunal moved in with Cassandra's mother in Price.

Feverishly, Ken wrestled together financing from India and by November, Kunal was back at the Ramada. In a recent telephone interview, Ken was still upset by the episode. These days, things seem to have become even more tense with his son's health and the motel both hanging in the balance.

"We are counting every day. I don't know what will happen in the next year and half (when Kunal turns 21)," Ken said. "But we will be looking forward to that day."

Growing up fast • In front of the Green River Ramada Inn sits a cherry 1968 Chevy Chev­elle SS 396. Its shiny orange paint is set off by twin black racing stripes down the hood. It sports a four-barrel carburetor and Hurst transmission and will lay rubber in four gears. The black leather upholstery is brand new.

Kunal may be the only 19-year-old in this little town who could plunk down the kind of coin required for a classic sports car. It could be seen as his reward for holding the family business together.

Seventeen months ago, Kunal was lean and cut the figure of a Bollywood movie star. Today his hair is long, he's put on weight and his face has lost some of its boyishness. He characterizes himself as 19 going on 40.

"I'm a different person than I was a year ago. It's been darn hard. Running a hotel is a bigger task than I thought," he conceded. "I've accepted that it causes stress. Saying it doesn't bother me is an exaggeration, because it does."

Another thing that haunts him is the notion that some in this small community along Interstate 70 haven't forgotten Kunal's travails. About the time he turned 16, he ran afoul of the law. He wound up in juvenile detention and later, under court order, went into foster care in Price.

Because he was a minor, his record is not public, but everybody in town has a good idea what he'd been up to. And most were more than a little disappointed in the once-promising kid who had been class president and spelling bee champ.

Among those who haven't forgiven him are Cassandra's grandparents, who live in Green River. "They don't approve of him," she said somberly. "There are some people like that. That's why Kunal wants to leave Green River."

Kunal doesn't talk about his run-in with the law. But he will reminisce about his time in foster care in Price, which turned out to be among the best periods of his life. Price is much bigger than Green River, and he didn't feel like he was under a microscope anymore. He made new friends, including Cassandra, and got a job at Winger's restaurant. And his foster family was very supportive, he said. For a short time, he was just like any other teenager.

It was a big contrast to life with his uncle, which Kunal describes in no uncertain terms as harsh and unforgiving.

By the time he turned 17, Ken and Sarita, through their attorney, persuaded the juvenile court to allow Kunal to travel to India where he would live with them.

"When I was 12, I begged them to take me with them," he said. "But at 17, I didn't want to go. I wanted to stay in Price."

Kunal's year in India was spent much like his parents have lived the last seven years — waiting to get back. He got a high school diploma online, shot a lot of hoops at a nearby playground and stayed in touch with Cassandra.

At 18, and no longer under the juvenile court's authority, Kunal returned to Green River bent on saving the Ramada for his parents and demonstrating to everyone else that he's a good man. It's proving to be an arduous course, but Kunal remains resolute.

"It's getting a little easier now," he said. "It's a process."

csmart@sltrib.com

The Sahs' story

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Christopher Smart has done four stories since 2007 on Kunal Sah and his parents. Go online to read them:

• Green River Boy to represent Utah at National Spelling Bee (March 8, 2007) http://bit.ly/14eTbj6

• Teen growing up without exiled parents (Dec. 23, 2008) http://bit.ly/ZKPXlN

• Exiled teen, parents dream of returning to Utah (Feb. 13, 2011) http://bit.ly/ZjVwBB

• From boy to man: Utah teen must save the family business (Nov. 23, 2011) http://bit.ly/16PHqgk

Learn more on Trib Talk

Kunal Sah and reporter Christopher Smart will talk about Sah's case and answer questions at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at sltrib.com during a weekly Trib Talk discussion moderated by Jennifer Napier-Pearce.