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Where's Osama by Sharon Hammad
Commendation - Charlotte Duncan Award 2012

I'm Sophie and I'm stuck looking after the new boy at school. His name is Osama and he's a refugee.

My dad doesn't like refugees. He says they shouldn't come here without being invited. 'Lots of people want to come. There isn't enough space because the boat people jump the queue,' he explains.

'You mean they push in like the Year 6 boys in the canteen line?' Dad nods. I think for a minute. 'What about the backyard? There's lots of space. We could put up the tent and the boat people could stay in that.'

Dad doesn't think that would work: 'Remember, every time you stay in the tent? After a while, you get bored and want to come back in the house. They'd want to come inside too. They'd want to take over our house. Where would we go then?'

Some people say that all refugees are terrorists. Osama doesn't look much like one to me. He has milk chocolate skin and black felt hair, and he's as skinny as a stick figure. He hardly talks. At lunchtime, he sits alone on the wall in the playground. His lunch is a kind of pancake with greenish paste. The Year 6 boys knock his lunchbox onto the ground. 'Take that Bin Laden!' they shout.

They used to do the lunchbox thing to me until my dad took me to judo lessons. Of course, I'm not allowed to practise judo outside the dojo. You can't go around doing uki goshi on everyone just because they're mean to you. Besides, once people find out you're a yellow belt, they don't tease you or take your lunch anymore.

Osama doesn't know any judo. He doesn't even try to stop the big boys from teasing him. He just cries. If you ask me, he's more terrified than terrorist.

Sometimes, Osama's mum comes to school to sit with him at lunchtime. She has brown skin like Osama's. She probably has dark hair too only I can't see because her headscarf covers every single hair except for her eyebrows. Osama's mum doesn't know much English so most of the time she just smiles. Osama gets teased even worse because his mum comes to school.

Yesterday, Osama's mum told me she has to go to the hospital for a special test. She asked if he could come to my place after school today. 'You are kind to him. Please will you ask your mama?'

I was pretty sure it would be alright with Mum but Dad wouldn't be very happy if he heard about it. I tried to think of an excuse. 'I might ... um... have to go to judo training. Can't his dad look after him?'

For once, his mum stopped smiling, 'He is not here. Bad men take him away. They come back to take us. So we come to Australia.'

I couldn't imagine anyone taking my dad away from me.

This morning, Osama's mum came to school early. 'You ask your mama?'

I didn't but I said, 'It's okay.' She hugged me and it felt pretty nice. It won't feel so nice when my dad finds out.

Now school is over and Osama is walking home with me. He walks so close, he steps on my heels. When he tries to hold my arm, I shake him off. It's one thing to be nice to someone; he doesn't need to get all over you.

After we arrive, I explain to my mum about Osama's mum going to the hospital. Osama starts to cry.

Mum gives us each a piece of caramel slice on a plate. We take our plates outside to the back patio. Osama looks at his slice as if he doesn't know what to do with it. Does he expect me to eat it for him too?

I munch into my piece. It tastes warm and sweet and coconutty. 'Mmm.' Spit leaks out of my mouth as I chew.

Osama watches me. He waits until I am finished before he picks up his plate, making sure his fingers don't touch the food. Slowly, he rotates the plate, checking the piece of slice all over. He lifts the plate up under his nose, closes his eyes and sniffs.

'It won't bite you,' I say. 'You're supposed to bite it. Go on.'

He pinches off a corner of the slice and puts it on the end of his tongue. His eyes widen with surprise, as if he'd thought I was only pretending it tasted delicious. Suddenly, he crams the whole piece in his mouth. A waterfall of spit spills over his chin.

'More?' I ask. He nods so hard I'm afraid his head will drop off and bounce away like a basketball. I pile his plate. He eats as if he is trying to fill up his skinny arms and legs all in one go.

Later, I show him my room. He ignores my computer and goes straight for the pyramid of soft toys in the corner. There's so many I can't remember who gave all of them to me. Osama picks up a small rabbit that still has the shop tag attached to its ear. He presses it against his chest so hard that if it was a real rabbit it would be squished. For the rest of the afternoon, he won't let go of the toy even though he can't hold on properly when I'm teaching him to ride my bike.

We are having so much fun together that I forget to worry about Dad coming home until I hear his car in the driveway. That's when I panic.

'Quick, it's my dad. You have to hide.' Osama's eyes roll around their sockets like marbles in a jar and his face goes khaki.

He runs, ducking and diving around the yard faster than a remote control plane that's got out of control. First, he tries to hide behind a tree, then behind the garbage bin. Finally, he darts under the house. I guess Osama is more scared of my dad than he is of the creepy-crawlies under there.

Dad gets out of the car. 'How's my girl?' he says, giving me a monster hug. I follow him inside. 'And how's my other girl,' he says, kissing Mum. I watch them joke around though I know pretty soon none of us will be smiling.

Then Mum asks me, 'Where's Osama?'

Dad laughs as he looks in the slice tin. 'Not in here. Is this a new game?' 'No, it's Sophie's friend. Is he still outside?'

The longer I hesitate the more they look at me as if I might have done something wrong. In the end, I tell them where Osama is and I tell them why.

I was right to worry. Dad is upset, partly because Osama is here, but mostly because I thought Dad would be mean to a kid. 'After all, the boy can't help what his parents did,' he says. 'They're the ones who ought to be locked up.'

'Osama only has his mum. His dad was kidnapped. If his mum got locked up, he wouldn't have anyone.'

'For a while, Dad is quiet. Then he asks, 'Well, what do we do now?'

We go outside to the place where Osama ran under the house. He is so still and quiet it's as if he isn't there. He must have had heaps of practice at hiding.

'It's okay,' I call. 'My dad's not angry. You can come out.' But he doesn't.

I turn to my dad. 'It's no good me saying it. It has to be you,' I tell him. 'You've got to convince him.'

So Dad talks. He talks and talks. He says things I've never heard him say before. He says how he reckons, back in their country, some bad men must have been chasing Osama and his mum. The men might have tried to trick them out of their hiding places, but Osama would have been too smart for that. Dad says he isn't trying to trick Osama. He promises it is safe here. Doesn't Osama want to phone the hospital to see if his mum needs us to pick her up? Of course, there's no hurry. Osama can come out whenever he's ready.

And after a long time, he does. Parallel strips of snot emerge from his nose like railway tracks from a tunnel. He and the toy rabbit still squashed against him are filthy from under the house.

Dad pulls some clean tissues from his pocket and offers them to Osama. 'Don't be afraid mate. I won't hurt you.'

'Yeah. I'll do judo on him if he does,' I say. Osama laughs and snot drips into his mouth.

We go inside for more caramel slice.

Copyright © 2012. Sharon Hammad