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My London Story: Josephine Ocaka
Photograph: Jack Latimer

The Ugandan refugee who found a community through running

Josephine Ocaka moved to London as a teenager fleeing war in Uganda. Now, she's a Parkrun regular

By Dominique Sisley
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Josephine Ocaka came to London aged 15, fleeing war in her homeland of Uganda. Now, she lives in Camberwell, where she’s a regular at her local Parkrun. She got into running by accident. In 2015, she convinced her colleagues to sign up for a local Parkrun, thinking it would be a one-off team-building exercise. Nearly five years on, she rarely misses a session. The five-kilometre event, which takes place every Saturday in more than 22 countries, has introduced her to a new community.

I fled the war in Uganda and came to London in 1989. I lost a lot of my family and people I was at school with. A lot of us fled because it was the only way to survive.

My auntie was already here and I came with my brother and two sisters. That made it easier to integrate. We lived in Blackheath, which was very diverse. We were near Greenwich Park, so there was loads of space to play and do sports.

At the time, all I knew about London was what I’d seen on TV. I only saw glamorous stuff: nice cars, everyone looking stylish. When I arrived in the UK, I was shocked. There were so many different accents! I couldn’t understand cockney at all – I thought it was a totally different language.

Before Parkrun, I did not run for anything. I didn’t see the point – I didn’t even run for the bus. But because I’d signed up so many people I worked with, I couldn’t let the other members of my team down. So I had to do it.

Running helps me think. I enjoy the freedom of it. I make the best decisions while I’m running because it’s quiet and I have my own way of dealing with things in my head. By the time I’ve finished, I’ve figured out what to do next.

I feel a sense of belonging with the Parkrun community.
I’ve met a lot of people who’ve become my friends and a great support system. They also challenge me. There are days where I don’t want to run and they will be encouraging. You feel like you don’t want to let anyone down.

The majority of people at the Parkrun I go to are women. The knowledge and wisdom that they’ve passed on to me is amazing. We talk about so much during the run: you’re really multitasking. We run, we have a chat, we deal with our problems. It’s an amazing thing.

Everyone should give running a go. Don’t be shy. Believe it or not, we’ve all been there. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy, so it’s important to try and open up. There’s so much support at Parkrun.

Parkrun is teaming up with This Girl Can to host an International Women’s Day run on Sat Mar 7

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Photograph: Andy Parsons

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