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Green River • Twenty-one-year-old Kunal Sah raises the brows over his big, brown eyes, lets out a soft sigh and says, "It's fate."
It's fate that he was separated from his parents at age 13. It was fate that the straight-A student, who competed in the National Spelling Bee, ran afoul of the law at 16 and was unable to finish high school with his peers as his dream of medical school evaporated. It was fate that at 18 he was saddled with the day-to-day operation of the family motel in Green River while his parents waited in exile in India.
"It's fate" that's the only way Kunal, an American by birthright, can cope and make sense of the trials and tribulations of the past eight years.
And now he has a 9-month-old son, Keshav. But the baby and his mother, Cassandra Hawkinson, live with her mother in Helper. The couple's future seems uncertain.
But for the first time since his parents, Ken and Sarita Sah, left the country after losing their legal battle with U.S. Immigration authorities, things are looking up.
After he turned 21 on Saturday, Kunal can now begin the process of sponsoring his parents' return from New Delhi. Under a best-case scenario, that would take about a year.
The other good news: Since spring, Rajiv and Anjali Panchal, along with their 8-year-old daughter, Yuvana, have been helping run the Ramada Express in Green River. The immigrants from Mumbai had been operating a motel in Santa Maria, Calif., for the past two years.
Their energy and gregarious nature have lifted the spirits of Kunal, who sees Raj and Anjali as the brother and sister he never had.
Since Kunal took over the Ramada in 2011, the place has been slowly falling apart its customer base dwindling, its online reviews slumping as he sought to keep his parents' dream alive while navigating young adulthood with little supervision.
"Even though I was brought up in the business, it was not possible," he said of his efforts at running the motel by himself. "It couldn't be done. I made a mess of it."
Talk in the small town was that something untoward was going on at the Ramada, as Kunal bought new cars, one after another, while business suffered. His run-in with the law at age 16 left some thinking the worst. Although juvenile records are sealed, everyone in town had a good idea of what had happened and they were plenty disappointed in the young man who had represented their town at the nation's capital.
The people of Green River, population 950, are as friendly and helpful as any in Utah. But like everywhere else, tongues do wag, and in a small town, sentiments are amplified and echoed.
"No one really knows what's going on at the Ramada," said a 25-year-old Green River native who didn't want to give her name. "People think he's dealing drugs or something. He's driving new cars all the time, but there aren't any people staying at the motel."
Dreams Undone • Ken Sah arrived in the United States in 1990 on a student visa to study aircraft mechanics in Oakland, California. He later applied for asylum, and Sarita joined him on a visitor's visa.
As the aircraft industry waned there, they worked various jobs in restaurants and motels, scrimping and saving in hopes of someday owning a business. In 1997, the couple discovered a small Budget Inn for sale in Green River, Utah. They jumped at the chance.
Chasing their American Dream, they spruced up the place and worked 24/7. By 2001, they had marshaled enough capital to open the Ramada Express two miles up the road.
But what should have been a happy milestone coincided with a ruling from immigration officials that their application for asylum had been denied. After unsuccessful appeals, they departed in 2007.
Most in Green River viewed the Sahs as model citizens and found it hard to believe that such productive small-business owners would be kicked out of the country.
But Utah's congressional delegation did not see fit to sponsor requested legislation that would help them.
The couple realizes they made mistakes regarding the immigration process, but they worked within the system and didn't go into hiding as some immigrants do. "We always wanted to be legal residents," Ken said after losing the bid to stay. "We always worked within the law."
They are not allowed to visit the United States.
As painful as it was, Ken and Sarita left Kunal behind to get an American education and attain the next phase of their dream when he would become a medical doctor. His uncle, D.C. Prasad, took over as hotelier and foster parent.
The next three years were hell, Kunal recalls of the abusive environment around his uncle.
"D.C. beat me down. Years and years with a guy like that, everything goes out the window. The dream I had about being a neuro-surgeon, that whole thing just flew out the window," he said.
"When I did what I did and they locked me up that saved me. It saved me from D.C."
Kunal pleaded guilty, and after months in juvenile detention, he went into court-ordered foster care in Price. Under the care of his foster parents, the Bettino family, he thrived, met new friends and got a job at Winger's.
Heartsick with their son's predicament and his absence, Ken and Sarita petitioned the court to allow Kunal to finish his probation under their care in India.
With his new life and friends in Price, including Cassandra, he departed reluctantly.
Unsteady at the helm • A year later, Prasad, who had been running the motel for Ken and Sarita in Green River, was ready to depart. He had remarried an Indian woman and wanted to return to India to be with her and his new daughter.
At 18, having finished probation, Kunal went back to Utah to take the reins at the Ramada.
But it wasn't long before the bank came to repossess the motel after he missed several mortgage payments.
"I thought it was over then," he recalled. "But I couldn't give up."
With what felt like the world on his shoulders, Kunal began suffering migraines that would put him down for 24 hours at a time. He was tested for brain tumors, but none were found.
Half a world away, Sarita was worried and sleepless. "We have one son in the entire world," she said in a telephone interview in April 2013. "How can a boy run that business? The pressure is making him sick."
At about that time, Cassandra moved to Green River to help Kunal with the motel.
But rather than celebrate her eventual pregnancy, it was too much for Kunal. Initially he believed he could handle the commitment and responsibility, but it soon overwhelmed the then-19-year-old.
"When Cassandra became pregnant, it really threw me off track," he said. "I lost whatever was left. It's like, I give up."
Meant to be • In an online video interview last week from Delhi, Sarita wept as she recalled the years without her son and the ups and downs at the motel. Nonetheless, the couple believes the end of their separation is in sight.
"The last three years has been a nightmare," Sarita said. "But we are excited to see Kunal, and we are excited to see our grandson."
Ken said he is feeling some relief now that Raj and Anjali Panchal are at the motel.
"We almost lost everything," he said. "But we are happy right now."
Misty Bastian, like most folks in Green River, holds Ken and Sarita Sah in high regard for their friendliness and hard work. She's looking forward to their return and says it will be good for Kunal.
"He's a smart kid. But it's been hard on him, and he's made some bad choices," she said. "I don't know if there is a lot of trust with Kunal, as far as townspeople go."
But Anjali hopes the people of Green River won't judge Kunal harshly.
When he returned, he felt that people were disappointed in him, she explained, so he has kept to himself.
"What happened was in his youth," she added.
"He is a very nice person. People should understand his situation. And he has kept this motel that is something."
Raj would like Kunal to see more of the world after his parents return and free him of his day-to-day responsibilities at the motel.
"Right now in Green River, he is a frog in a pond," Raj said. "But Green River will be our springboard."
These days, Kunal drives a 1997 Ford pickup. "The Chevelle Super Sport, the Dodge Charger, all that's gone," he said. "They were bought with the mindset of a 19-year-old."
The migraines, too, are gone.
With the help of Raj and Anjali, Kunal has begun to set goals again. They have bonded, bringing him a sense of well-being. Kunal is beginning to believe again in the American Dream.
"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "It's fate."
The Sahs' story
O Salt Lake Tribune reporter Christopher Smart has written four stories since 2007 on Kunal Sah and his parents. Go online to read them:
• 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
• For Utah teen, Saving the family dream is an uphill battle (April 12, 2013) bit.ly/1mnfDA