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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Archana Masih

The strange case of Ken and Sarita Sah

April 04, 2007

In one of Delhi's narrow lanes, Ken and Sarita Sah wait for a call on their cell phone every morning. And when that call comes through, like always, it is their only child, 13-year-old Kunal from their home in Green River, Utah, USA, calling to say good night.

It is Ken and Sarita's happiest moment of the day. Once Kunal calls off, the couple waits for the next morning, when their son will call yet again.

Sarita's eyes light up when she talks about her exceptionally gifted son, only to give way to tears on the anguish of being separated from him. "How I miss my baby, he is living there without his parents. How I miss my home, my life, my everything."

Ken and Sarita Sah are an Indian immigrant success story that has gone horribly wrong. Sixteen years after they arrived in the United States, they built a beautiful home, established a lucrative motel business and nurtured a brilliant son who won the Utah Spelling Bee championship two years in a row.

Everything was going beautifully till they were deported to India in July last year. Their son who was born in America and hence a citizen, could stay on, but Ken and Sarita had to leave.

Ken had arrived in the United States as a student in 1990 with a legal student visa. His wife joined him in 1992.

"When I was in college in California, I was told I could get a work permit. An Indian professor advised me to go to a lawyer for the work permit. I was overwhelmed that I would be able to earn as a student. I did not know at that time that the lawyer had applied for political asylum -- which I had no idea about as I was absolutely raw then," says Ken Shah, sitting on a stool at his brother's jewellery store in Delhi.

Their case came up for hearing 10 years later -- in fact just a few days before the 10-year period expired. "If they had denied our case in 2,3 years after we applied, we could have left but they took 16, 17 years to decide. In those years we built our business and lived there."

Their request for political asylum was denied because the grounds on which it was requested -- the communal tension between Hindus and Muslims in his hometown in Hajipur, Bihar arising due to the movement for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 -- was no longer considered valid.

"We applied to the higher court, but it was denied. We reapplied for an investor visa but we were told we were not eligible for that either. We kept trying for a visa and even got support from our mayor and senator but the political climate is such that all have withdrawn," says Ken.

The Sahs are hoping that US immigration authorities will look at their case on humanitarian grounds. "We have been model citizens, contributed to the American economy, created jobs, I wish they would consider all this. We can reapply but it is not easy."

Now their hopes rest with India's ministry of external affairs. Ken is trying to approach the foreign minister. "If the Indian political people show an interest and push our case to help unite one family, there could be some hope."

Since their return to India, Kunal has visited them twice. It was his first time in India. When he was here for his Christmas break, he fell ill and had to be hospitalised thrice. Back home in Green River, Utah, he stays with Ken's younger brother and his Indian-American wife, who look after Ken and Sarita's motel business now.

Sarita shows a business card with Kunal and her name. "He wanted his name also on our business card, so we got his name printed as well," she smiles. The Sahs moved to Green River, Utah, very conservative, Mormon country, to set up a successful motel business. They are the only Indian family in the beautiful town where the Madhuri Dixit-Anil Kapoor starrerPukar was shot.

They bought the Budget Inn, and built the Ramada Limited subsequently. The couple ran their business as a team since they started out in 1997.

"We didn't have any family in the USA, so it did not matter where we settled down and so we came to Green River," says Sarita.

The Sahs -- Ken or Kanhaiya is from Bihar and Sarita from Calcutta -- did not visit India in the 16 years they were in America because of their visa status. After their deportation they have been moving from one relative to another and hoping for a miracle that could take them to their son and their home in Green River.

"We don't know where we are going. Every day is a blind for us. We are Indians but just because we are Indians, things will not be given to us. We have to start from scratch here, when we already have everything that we've built in America," says Sarita.

Kunal, a brilliant student who scores high grades and wants to go to Harvard, will represent Utah at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC in May. "Wish we were there to see him, wish I could be with my baby," says Sarita, wiping yet another tear from her cheek.

Lead Photograph: Seema Pant

The Rediff Specials