Jonathan Clarke and his family of six didn’t hesitate to open their home when Nikola Bosic, an exchange student from Serbia, enrolled at Cardinal O'Hara High School in late August.
Bosic intended to stay the entire year in North Tonawanda with the Clarkes. He would finish a full school year, play high school basketball and return to Serbia for the summer.
But more than five weeks ago, schools in Erie County closed in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. O’Hara, a private Catholic school in Tonawanda, closed March 15 and has moved to online instruction.
Bosic, a 6-foot-6-inch junior from Belgrade, knew he couldn’t return to Europe during a state of emergency. Serbia closed its airports and border crossings in March in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus, and airports in Belgrade and Niš, the third-largest city in Serbia, are closed for commercial traffic. Travel restrictions are in place across Europe.
He’s staying with the Clarkes while he waits out the pandemic. He hopes to return to Europe in June at the earliest, but is unsure of when he will be able to travel.
“It is tough being separated from my family, thousands of miles away,” Bosic said. “But the situation there is not better than here. Either here or there, it would be the same thing. It’s better for me to stay here, all the conditions, the same routine, working out and trying to stay healthy and safe.”
Clarke and his wife, Keisha, have embraced that responsibility, even though this is the first time they’ve hosted a student from another country.
The only trying part, Clarke said with a chuckle, is fitting seven people with different schedules, different habits and different perspectives in one home.
“But this is almost second nature for us,” Clarke said. “We moved from Long Island to North Tonawanda, and we made it a culture of helping others.”
Tony Pulvirenti, the boys basketball coach and the assistant athletic director at O’Hara, said Bosic came to O’Hara through a Serbian placement program for international students.
“Mr. Clarke volunteered to take Nikola in,” Pulvirenti said. “They already have children at home and to bring in another person, someone who is foreign, and they don’t know him, that’s a lot of credit to them. It would be difficult for most people to do that with an already full house.
“Jonathan’s son (Keiyan) plays basketball and has a pretty active lifestyle, so Nikola is getting the full experience as a U.S. student here.”
Bosic played basketball for 10 years in Belgrade, but knew that if he wanted to play at the college level, he had to go to the United States to face some of the strongest competition.
“My parents saw that I have a talent in the sport,” Bosic said. “The U.S.A. is the best country for basketball, and I want to try and get a scholarship for college and possibly become a professional.”
Bosic, a shooting guard and a small forward, averaged 5.1 points and 4.6 rebounds for the Hawks, and shot 46% from the field and 81% from the free-throw line.
“It took Nikola some time to get adjusted to our style and to our team,” Pulvirenti said. “He realized, coming over here, that there’s a transition period and that the European game is a lot different than it is here, with the physicality and the style of play.
“Towards the end of the season, he played more and more, and he got better and better, and then a light came on for him. That’s a rewarding feeling, as a coach, when you see a player get it.”
O’Hara’s season ended March 3 with a 74-66 loss to Bishop Timon-St. Jude in the Monsignor Martin Richard Wojciechowski Memorial Cup championship game.
Less than two weeks later, schools closed, and much of the United States changed as measures were put in place to contain Covid-19. Pulvirenti estimates about 20 international students enroll at O’Hara each year, and said that some are still in the United States.
“Nikola is not the only one, but he is in a unique position,” Pulvirenti said. “Basketball season just ended, and the pandemic hit us and it shut down the world, basically.”
Serbia is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, with a population of nearly 7 million. Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, has a population of nearly 1.2 million.
In Serbia, Bosic explained, the government has taken measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 that are more stringent than in the United States. According to the U.S, Embassy in Serbia, 8,042 people have been diagnosed, and 156 people have died there. Reuters reported last week that epidemiologists have recorded a slowing rate of infections in the country.
Serbia has been in a state of emergency since March 15, but Bloomberg reported earlier this week that the country’s government began to ease one of Europe’s strictest coronavirus lockdown regimes, which included allowing small businesses to reopen and relaxing a daily curfew that had kept most citizens indoors.
“There (was) a state of emergency, which means you can go outside only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Bosic said. “Then, after that, you cannot go outside or you will be arrested. They have to practice social distancing, too, and it’s so, so challenging because Belgrade is a major city. All the buildings that include gyms, schools, universities, are closed. Museums are closed. Everything is shut down. My family is just staying home.
“Thank God, everyone in my family is healthy.”
Bosic anticipates he’ll return home by the middle of June. Bosic also plans to return to O’Hara in the fall.
He’s spent his time with the Clarkes by completing his school work, doing at-home workouts and communicating daily with his parents, Dragan and Sladjana, in Belgrade, either by video calls, text messages or by WhatsApp, a messaging and video platform for smartphones.
“He came here to better himself,” Pulvirenti said. “He has no family here, and I’m pulling for him.
“It’s really the first time I’ve been involved with someone whose parents aren’t around to give support, face to face. But it’s a rewarding feeling to coach and to help someone like Nikola.”
Clarke owns Put 2 On Me, a company and brand that trains athletes and promotes athletic performance. He keeps in touch with Bosic’s parents and Bosic’s relatives in Serbia through Facebook and Facebook Messenger. He's mindful of Bosic's daily schedule, too, whether it's doing online coursework, exercising or helping with chores around the house.
But he also pays attention to how Bosic is handling being in an unsettling situation during a global crisis.
“It’s about searching inside yourself,” Clarke said. “That’s been done a lot right now, and I know Nikola has searched inside himself. The world is shut down, so what else are you going to do. You have to do things, in a good way. All of this may feel uncomfortable at first, but this time is when someone goes deep into each person’s self-awareness.”