New country, new community — Hanieh found so much more than fitness at her local parkrun

It’s a daunting thing to move across the world to a place you’ve never been before – especially if you don’t know anyone.

So, when Hanieh Kosari arrived in Australia from Iran to study, she was understandably wide-eyed and nervous as she faced the reality of becoming immersed in a new culture.

The then 28-year-old didn’t plan to be here eight years later, but the community she created has a magnetic pull.

“The goal was to do my degree, but on the way, different things came, and eventually changed my life,” Hanieh said.

Those life-changing events all started with a humble Saturday morning parkrun.

Where it all began

The year was 2014 and Hanieh had been in Australia for two weeks.

She was living with an Australian family and had a long road ahead, studying for a post-graduate degree in Environmental Engineering at the University of Newcastle.

Facing years of computer work, they encouraged her to go along to parkrun, a free five-kilometre run at a park down the road.

Hanieh wasn’t into running but wanted something to combat the stress of relocating, studying and sitting — a jog was exactly what she needed.

She says the atmosphere was a contrast to what she left behind in Iran.

Hanieh developed a wide circle of friends at parkrun she can now call her community.(parkrun: Glen Turner)

“It’s not usual to see people out running in Iran, like we see here,” she said.

“It was exciting to see how many people were coming in fresh at 8am on a Saturday.

“They were all smiling and welcoming new people, and that was lovely.”

Hanieh met a lot of people at that very first parkrun at Blackbutt, but there was one stand-out.

When Hanieh met Rahmat

Rahmat had been going to parkrun for a year before Hanieh came on the scene.

Also from Iran, he came to Australia to study. As fate would have it, Rahmat was enrolled at the University of Newcastle too. And it turns out, they had mutual friends.

“A lovely couple I met through my landlady invited me for breakfast after parkrun,” Hanieh said.

“That couple also invited my (now) husband to their house.”

Hanieh holds a red t-shirt while Rahmat holds a picture of a black t-shirt.
Hanieh and Rahmat have both done almost 200 parkruns.(Supplied)

And so they hit it off, and Hanieh’s first parkrun sparked the start of a relationship that blossomed, and eventually led to a marriage.

The couple wed in Iran and celebrated with their parkrun community when they got back.

They now also have a one-year-old son, Kian.

Hanieh and Rahmat both credit parkrun as being the catalyst for a community that helped them to settle in Australia.

“We know many people there now, and it was the start of a lot of friendships,” Rahmat said.

“You just have a family there.”

Blackbutt parkrun 2
Runners stride along the track at Blackbutt parkrun.(Facebook: Blackbutt parkrun)

‘It’s critical in settling’

Dr Michelle Redford immigrated to Australia from the UK the same year as Hanieh, and they became friends through parkrun.

As a GP and parkrun Health and Wellbeing Ambassador, Dr Redford believes building a community is beneficial to your health and in finding your way in a new country.

“It’s critical in settling,” she said.

“I think unless you’re part of a community, your health is going to suffer, unfortunately.”

Women with numbers on their shirts smile for the camera.
Michelle (front) celebrates her 250th parkrun with friends Lisa, Sally, Susie, Maggie and Hanieh.(Supplied)

Compared to other health risk factors, Dr Redford says social isolation and loneliness often fly under the radar.

“Loneliness is a risk factor for people developing mental health problems as well as physical health problems,” she said.

Dr Redford has completed more than 250 parkruns, volunteered over 30 times, and built her own community there, too.

So, as part of the parkrun practice initiative with the Royal Australian College of GPs, she’s confident socially prescribing parkrun to her patients if it fits, including for those moving here from overseas.

“GPs have the ability to reach some of those harder-to-reach communities who could benefit the most,” Dr Redford said.

A parkrun volunteer with a first timers and tourists sign stands and smiles.
There is a first-timer’s welcome at parkrun, which introduces the event and allows people to meet at least a couple of others.(Supplied: parkrun)

“Parkrun is a welcoming environment. It’s not really about the running, it’s more about coming along and being part of something on a weekly basis.”

And so much can come from turning up week in and week out.

A job interview, best friends and a baby shower

Along with meeting her future husband, Hanieh credits parkrun with finding that tight-knit group of friends that lift you up.

“A few lovely ladies I met at parkrun, they are now my best friends here in Newcastle,” she said.

Hanieh loves that she was given the opportunity of a weekly gathering, to get to know them.

She says they were there for her through the various lockdowns, and every step of the journey of having a baby.

Hanieh and Rahmat push a pram while on a parkrun next to the water.
Hanieh and Rahmat met at parkrun in 2014, are now married and have a one-year-old child.(Supplied)

“Those lovely friends who I made at parkrun planned and organised everything for a baby shower for me,” Hanieh said.

Again, when Hanieh was looking for work, she even got a job interview through her parkrun contacts.

“I was impressed to get that interview,” she said.

That ‘community feel’

Rod Pickering is event director at Lake Mac parkrun, another of Hanieh and Rahmat’s locals.

With 180 runs and almost as many volunteer caps, he says parkrun is a community-oriented event and has been for many years.

A group of people stand in front of a lake for a photo.
Rod Pickering (far right) is the event director at Lake Mac parkrun, which he says promotes a community atmosphere.(Supplied: Rod Pickering)

“We’ve seen a lot of new people come along and fit straight into the community atmosphere that we promote,” Rod said.

“Every parkrun I go to, I find the same sort of community feel.”

Without parkrun, Hanieh doesn’t think she’d have the same support as she does now.

“I don’t think I could find these lovely people anywhere else,” she said.

Same goes for Rahmat, who didn’t think he’d still be living in Newcastle.

“I didn’t know where I’d end up,” he said.

Thanks to parkrun ushering them into a community, they’ve both landed in a place they can call home.

ABC Sport is partnering with parkrun to promote the benefits of physical activity and community participation.

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