High school basketball player says he was unaware he is actually 29

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A South Sudanese player who starred for his high school basketball team as a 17-year-old student but was later arrested on suspicion that he was, in fact, 29, has insisted he made an honest mistake – because he didn’t know his real age.

Jonathan Nicola, who at 6ft 9in and 202lbs towered above his peers at Catholic Central secondary school in Windsor, Ontario, was detained for allegedly using false information on a passport and a student visa application. Nicola was arrested on 15 April.

Nicola attended a detention briefing on Tuesday and has been ordered to remain in custody in Canada for now. He did not speak at the hearing, but his testimony from an earlier hearing, when he told officials that his mother had not been truthful about his real age, was made public.

“I aways keep asking what is the specific age that I was born, and she has told me that she could not remember,” Nicola said on 19 April. “Over [in South Sudan], not every year we study. We always keep moving to different schools, and over there, they do not ask your age. They do not ask you nothing.”

Nicola said he just wanted to receive a good education in Canada so he could support his family back home. “I am not a liar .... I am religious. I pray to God. If something bad happen to me here, I do not know what would happen to my mother back home because she is really sick. She has diabetes,” Nicola said. “I did not come here to harm any people or do something bad. All my goal is 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.”

Nicola, according to a transcript of the hearing, arrived in Canada on a student visa last November to attend Catholic Central secondary school in Windsor on a full scholarship. But a spokesperson for the school board confirmed to the Toronto Star that the district does not offer athletic scholarships.

It is unclear how Nicola could have successfully gone through so many levels of screening before being allowed to come to Canada.

It was only when Nicola applied for a US visa to play basketball with his high school in America that Canadian authorities were alerted.

“When he recently applied for a US visitor visa, it was determined by fingerprint match that he was the same individual who had made a previous application to the US using a DoB of 1 November 1986,” the Canadian border services agency said. The second date of birth would suggest Nicola is 29.

Information from US officials also indicated that Nicola and his siblings were born in Saudi Arabia where his father, a mechanical engineer, has remained after separating from his wife, who returned to South Sudan with the children.

At his earlier hearing, Nicola asked to be allowed to go home to South Sudan.

“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 added before apologizing to his high school coach, Peter Cusumano. Nicola said he was sorry for what happened and what “they have to deal with.”

But Nicola’s plea for release was denied by adjudicator Valerie Currie, who said she believed he deliberately deceived officials. “I understand your desire to [go home], but the way you have gone about doing that is frankly, quite illegal,” said Currie, according to the transcript.

School board spokesman Stephen Fields watched the hearing. He called it a “sad story.”

Nicola’s next detention hearing is scheduled for 24 May.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Guardian sport, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th April 2016 17.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010