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‘You are constantly battling with your mind whether people want to be in your company’ - Norwich woman who slept rough and a city refugee lift the lid on loneliness with Ed Balls and Delia Smith

PUBLISHED: 18:25 23 December 2017 | UPDATED: 18:48 23 December 2017

Ed Balls, Chairman of Norwich City and Delia Smith, Owner of Norwich City sharing mince pies with Mel Wallis and Patrick Changa at Carrow Road. Photo: Jason Dawson

Ed Balls, Chairman of Norwich City and Delia Smith, Owner of Norwich City sharing mince pies with Mel Wallis and Patrick Changa at Carrow Road. Photo: Jason Dawson

©JASONPIX

Two special guests were welcomed to Norwich City’s match against Brentford last night (Friday) as part of a campaign to reduce loneliness this Christmas.

Jo Cox. Pic: Jo Cox Foundation/PA Wire.Jo Cox. Pic: Jo Cox Foundation/PA Wire.

Patrick Changa, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Mel Wallis, who used to live rough in Norwich, were greeted by Delia Smith and Ed Balls at Carrow Road.

The pair joined Delia at her family table for dinner, and the group shared mince pies at the football ground before watching the match from the directors’ box.

The invitation was extended as part of the Great Christmas Get Together, which was launched by Brendan Cox, the widower of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox.

The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, set up by the MP before her death last year, revealed last week how being lonely increases the risk of a premature death by a third and called on everybody to make tackling loneliness a priority this Christmas.

Norwich was recently identified as one of the worst cities in the UK for loneliness.

Ms Wallis, who runs the Revelation Café in the city to help bring lonely people together, used to be homeless. She said: “I’m here because of the Jo Cox Foundation and the loneliness campaign and how important that is, to spread to word and get people talking to each other. It’s close to my heart because I used to be an alcoholic and had a very difficult time. I found being lonely devastating because you are constantly battling with your mind whether people want to be in your company or not. You question yourself, it affects your self-esteem and it’s depressing.”

Mr Changa, 28, fled the DRC in 2010 and now lives in Norwich. He suffered acute loneliness and was supported by the Red Cross Refugee Service before becoming a volunteer himself.

He said: “For me, as a refugee, this was a new city. Being lonely, it makes you ask whether you would be better off here or better off at home.

“I think for me I have experienced not having friends, for example at Christmas when you would be with your family. If I look around I only had one family I would consider as friends.

“I just finished my studies at UEA and even in your class, when there are 50 or 60 students, there are maybe one or two who are black and you don’t manage to make friends, that makes you feel are you better off here? It makes you feel home sick.”

Mr Changa, who fled war in his home country, added: “It all comes down to social lives - just speak to each other, I have neighbours who don’t talk to each other, we only say hi, there are others I don’t know their names. It’s so difficult but if you can wake up in the morning and say ‘hi neighbour’, just talk to each other. I think it’s one of the things, to encourage community cohesion.”

Ms Wallis, 44, added: “And that makes it easier to get together [if you have community cohesion]. For me I got involved with groups and things which are going on in my community, which gives me a reason to talk to people. It can be difficult just speaking to someone at the bus stop, and I know some people don’t like that.”

Ms Wallis said the Revelation Cafe would be open over the Christmas period for anyone who wanted to pop in for a chat.

Welcoming the support of Delia Smith and Ed Balls for the loneliness campaign, Mr Cox said: “Every act of kindness, large or small, will help make Britain a less lonely place this Christmas. That’s the idea behind mince pie moments, an excuse for all of us to reach out to someone who is lonely, or strike up a conversation with someone in our street. It doesn’t take much to change someone’s day for the better and we hope mince pie moments might help us take the first step. We don’t have to be a nation of strangers, especially at Christmas.”

Mrs Smith said: “Getting involved with your local football club can be one of the best defences against loneliness.”

• For more information on the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission click here, or for more on the Great Get Together click here.

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