Jonothan Nicola, far right, with the Catholic Central Comets basketball team. Windsor Essex Catholic School Board photo

Priest pleas for mercy for Windsor high school student found to be 29

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • April 29, 2016

WINDSOR, ONT. – Fr. Nichola Mauro-Iko of Windsor’s St. Alphonsus parish is pleading for mercy from Canadian authorities for a 29-year-old South Sudanese man in custody for portraying himself as a 17-year-old high school student to remain in Canada.

Jonathan John Elia Nicola is being held at Windsor’s South West Detention Centre after immigration authorities say he lied about his age to come to Canada.

The age discrepancy was discovered when Nicola applied for a visa in December to join the Catholic Central High School basketball team for games in the United States. But a check by American authorities found Nicola had previously applied for immigration status in the United States — Nicola was alleged to have applied in 2007 to a school in Jacksonville, Fla., which had a number of South Sudanese basketball players — and gave a different age and birth date at that time.

Information from U.S. authorities pegged Nicola’s birth date as Nov. 1, 1986. The American authorities concluded Nicola wouldn’t be visiting the country temporarily but would be seeking to move there permanently, and denied his request.

Nicola moved to Windsor last November and enrolled at Catholic Central High School. School authorities were told he was 17 years of age.

After arrival, the six-foot nine-inch Nicola soon became a well-regarded member of the student body and a star on Catholic Central’s basketball team, which led to revelations of his false age.

Mauro-Iko, who is from Sudan, expressed compassion for the young man, who is a parishioner at St. Alphonsus.

“I don’t condone lies,” the priest said.

But Mauro-Iko invoked Pope Francis’ call for mercy in this Year of Mercy. The priest said South Sudan, which obtained independence from Sudan in 2011, is a country in major strife — more than 50,000 people have been killed and two million have fled their homes in the new country’s continuing civil war. South Sudan has the highest score on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index.

“But, you know, somebody coming from that situation … the Church is standing on the side of mercifulness and kindness and for Jonathan. For me, as I saw him, he doesn’t have any ill intention in doing anything wrong or anything bad to anybody,” said Mauro-Iko.

Mauro-Iko also said it’s common for people in the African country to not know their ages because their parents are illiterate and they were not born in hospitals. They are often assigned ages later in life by a third-party assessor when they attend school.

Mauro-Iko, who fears Nicola could be in danger if he returns to South Sudan, is now trying to raise money for a bond to release him from custody and is seeking help from the South Sudanese community, many of whom attend St. Alphonsus, Windsor’s only downtown Catholic church.

Nicola declined a request for an interview.

The case has garnered international attention and Nicola remains in custody following a second hearing in late April.

Now, authorities are investigating how Nicola acquired a passport and visa to enter Canada, and whether he was assisted by anyone.

Local school officials have said they thought Nicola was big for his age but didn’t think anything more of it.

The case has shocked the Catholic Central community, not least of all his coach, Pete Cusumano, who hosted Nicola as a guest in his family’s home. Cusumano declined an interview request but has said he and his family are distraught over the entire incident. He attended the late April Immigration and Refugee Board hearing.

Cusumano earlier told The Windsor Star he was perplexed by the developments surrounding Nicola.

“He’d been vetted twice by government officials and arrives with all his documents,” he said. “Is the school supposed to call Canadian Border Services and tell them they got it all wrong? We have over 400 kids here (Catholic Central) who were born outside the country. We don’t have the resources to deal with that.”

The coach said he understands Nicola’s desperation

“I’m angry he lied, but I understand how desperate he was to get out of (South Sudan),” Cusumano told the Star.

“We can’t understand that level of desperation here. He really is a good kid who caused no trouble at all.”

(Stang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)

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