A few weeks ago, Jonathan Nicola was the star player on his high school basketball team, with a coach who believed he had a shot at going pro. But now that it's come out that the 17-year-old is actually a 29-year-old man, his ambitions — whatever they may have been — have been put on hold, and he's begging the Canadian government to send him back home to South Sudan.
"To be honest Miss, I am not a liar person. I am religious, I pray to God," Nicola said, according to a transcript of a hearing held just days after he was arrested, in which he talked about having suicidal thoughts.
"I did not even talk with the mental [health worker] because I do not want them to give me the — the pill so I will get addict to it and I was — doing harm things to myself."
Nicola has been in the custody of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) since April 15, when he was quietly removed from his school. He was called to the principal's office, where he was arrested.
At a detention hearing this week, the South Sudanese man, who arrived in Toronto in November, was told he'd have to remain in custody because he was considered a flight risk. He was in Canada on a student visa, and was studying at a Windsor, Ontario high school on a full athletic scholarship. On his scholarship and visa applications, as well as his passport, Nicola's date of birth was listed as November 25, 1998.
Although he didn't testify at the latest hearing, Nicola told the Immigration and Refugee Board earlier that he wasn't trying to lie about his age — the problem was that neither he nor his parents knew how old he actually was.
It was only in December, when he applied for a visitor's visa to travel to the US with his basketball team that questions were raised. Nicola's fingerprint, American officials discovered, matched those of someone with the same name and a birth date of Nov. 1, 1986, who had unsuccessfully applied for refugee status in 2007.
Last year, Nicola, who was born in Saudi Arabia where his father still works as a mechanical engineer, was refused a US visitor's visa that had been processed through Nairobi because authorities believed he was trying immigrate, not visit, and that he'd misrepresented himself.
At the earlier hearing, Nicola described how the false birth date on his documents first appeared. He said his mother provided the schools he attended — their financial situation resulted in him frequently having to switch — with different ages because she didn't remember when he was actually born."Over there they do not ask your age, they do not ask you nothing, all they do is simple test, they will put you in a class," he said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
He said a man called "Coach Steyn" told him all the information on his existing South Sudanese passport was likely a lie. This coach did all the paperwork for him to come to Canada, with the blessing of his mother, who is separated from his father and returned to South Sudan with her children in 2007 or 2008.
Nicola claimed it was Steyn who determined that he was born in 1998. When Nicola raised doubts, he was told to confirm with his mother, who couldn't provide him with a reliable answer either.
"So I went back and this guy he just do me the paper, so after a while (inaudible) so he did the whole papers, he did everything."
Speaking to the IRB member, Nicola stressed that his only goal in coming to Canada was to "study and get the education so I can go back home, I can help my mother, I can help all my rest of the family."
"So, I am here like the whole family is depending on me to get a good education and good study so I could go back and help them back," he said, adding that he felt bad for his current coach, with whom he's been living, because the man was completely unaware of the situation. The coach, who was at the hearing for support, did not put up the $5,000 cash bond required for Nicola to be released.
The 6-foot-9 man had managed to not only get through a series of screening and fool his coach, but to become an integral part of his basketball team, attracting the attention of local media.
"I think this kid will have a chance at the NBA," coach Pete Cusumano was quoted saying to the Windsor Star in January. "I have never said that about any kid from Windsor.
But not everyone was convinced.
"He just didn't physically look like he was in 11th grade," Gym Gymnopoulos, coach of an opposing basketball team from Vaughan Secondary School, told the Globe and Mail . "He just looked older."
There's currently a hold on removals to South Sudan, but Nicola has said he'd rather be sent back than remain in detention, as he's concerned about what would happen to his mother, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, if she heard about him being in jail.
"So please if you let me --- send me back home it would be much more better for me and for my family and for my mental health," he said. "I do not want something to happen (inaudible) while I am here waiting in the jail."
But in her decision, IRB member Valerie Currie said she believed Nicola had used a fake birth date on his student visa application to be able to attend high school and for a full scholarship.
Although she sympathized with his desire to help his family, Currie noted that the way he'd "gone about doing it quite frankly is illegal."
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk