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Who are we and what do we do?

Many asylum seekers are caught between the impossibility of returning home and the ‘hostile environment’ in the UK. If you are in this situation, you will know how hard it is to tell your story. What does the Home Office want to hear? If you tell the truth, will they believe you?

In the Legal branch we’ll listen to your story. We’ll take plenty of time and help you to sift through facts and feelings, so you can address the authorities clearly and with conviction. We also protect general rights, like the right to decent housing.

In the Heal & Grow branch we support this work by building trusting relationships over time. We run workshops where our members explore their stories through conversation, poetry, food, philosophy, art, as well as universal human stories. You’ll meet people in similar situations to your own and share a sense of hope and belonging.

Why are we called the Cotton Tree?

In 1792, a group of former African-American slaves arrived by boat on the shores of Freetown, Sierra Leone. They found a giant tree sheltering birds and animals. Under its sprawling branches, they rested and prayed.

Our organisation takes its name from real people, men, women and children, who celebrated their new-found freedom under a cotton tree after a long and treacherous journey.

This tree still stands at the heart of Freetown.

We bring hope to refugees and asylum seekers.

Our Vision

Who am I? Immigration officials demand a tidy answer. Name? Date of birth? Country of origin? At the end of the interview, you might receive a transcript: me, my life, my totality, neatly summarised in boxes.

But then why am I browsing this website?

Who am I? you ask. Who am I really? One thing is clear: like me, you are a human being. You are vulnerable to catastrophe. So am I. You can find yourself at the mercy of a storm. So can I. You sometimes inspire hatred as well as love. So do I.

In the ancient myth, a man called Odysseus found himself in a wild ocean storm somewhere between Africa and Europe. The wind howled. The giant waves crashed. Odysseus clung to his little raft, clung to life. He was a civilised man, a decent man, a man who loved and was loved. But he was done in; his heart was soaked through. The ocean had claimed him.

Suddenly, the storm drew breath. A seabird appeared and settled on the raft. There was a tremor of feathers, a fine spray of brine. “Odysseus,” said the bird.

It was a moment of stillness; a moment of hope. You are Odysseus and so am I.

We bring hope to refugees and asylum seekers.

The Cotton Tree Trust takes an integrated approach to the telling of personal stories.  We have two principal branches:


We assist asylum seekers and other refugees and their families in their efforts to assert their legal rights.

Legal aid doesn’t allow solicitors and other immigration advisers to offer the ‘leisurely schedule’ that asylum seekers and refugees normally need. The Cotton Tree provides expert assistance for solicitors and immigration advisers, as well as emotional support in conjunction with the Heal & Grow branch. We help clients tell their stories cogently; we prepare preliminary statements and cross-check statements and expert reports. We also help with non-immigration matters, such as housing and benefits.

2./ HEAL & GROW Branch

We aim to build confidence and resilience for those who are struggling with the law and trying to get their lives together in the UK. In a variety of workshops – writing, philosophy, ‘myth & clay’’ – we reflect on what it means to be a human being: who we are and who we want to be. We work with professionals in various areas, including a psychotherapist.

What is it like to be an asylum seeker in the UK?

For asylum seekers the goal is to get refugee status, but this often brings a whole new set of problems. In this video, Cotton Tree team members Arnold and Michael talk about some of the obstacles they encountered after they got leave to remain.


Our Team

Ruth Cigman, trustee, Heal&Grow, philosophy

Ruth co-founded the Cotton Tree as a place of sanctuary and ‘moving on’. She taught philosophy for many years at London University and brings it to our members through storytelling, food and conversation.

Michael Mark, trustee, law, finance

Michael co-founded the Cotton Tree. A tribunal judge for over 18 years, he has a wide range of legal experience. He gives our members the time they need to tell their stories.

Francis Standish, trustee

Francis has spent his career in educational learning and development: firstly children, then teachers, managers, and organisations. He runs retreats for asylum seekers and refugees.


George Goldstein, trustee, research

George has travelled extensively in his business life and is chair and co-founder of an international development NGO. He has 20 years’ experience working with economic and internally displaced migrants in Nepal.






Our Team

Arnold Christo-Leigh, law

Arnold came to the UK as an asylum seeker and co-founded the Cotton Tree. He uses his experience to help people facing hardships like his own.

Michael Mugishangyezi, Heal&Grow, school talks

A passionate and creative individual, Michael came to the UK as an asylum seeker. He co-founded the Cotton Tree and leads the schools programme. He has extensive experience of sharing his story with others.

Judith favour Ahikiri

Judith came to the UK as an asylum seeker and is a co-founder of the Cotton Tree. She works with a refugee and asylum seeker charity and is involved in variety of voluntary work.

Claire Manson, Heal&Grow, art

Claire has worked as an art psychotherapist in the NHS and independent sector. She co-founded Studio Upstairs, a working arts studio and therapeutic space, and helps our members to materialise their feelings in clay and colour.

Sohail Jannesari, campaigning, research

Sohail also co-founded the Cotton Tree. He works with a wide variety of migrant and refugee organisations and is doing a PhD that explores the effects of the asylum process on mental health.

Vincent Truter

Vincent is a cross-disciplinary creative director and social entrepreneur. He loves bringing brands that do good to life – like the Cotton Tree.

Nicole, Heal&Grow, finance, admin

A former chartered management accountant, Nicole has spent ten years working in communities that nourish, protect and care for human beings. She brings many skills and interests to the Cotton Tree, including poetry and eurythmy.

Judy Morrison, volunteer

A former administrator at London and Nottingham Trent Universities, Judy has volunteered in a primary school and a night shelter for homeless people. She works flexibly with our staff, bringing emotional and practical support to members of the Cotton Tree.

If you are interested in what we do and would like to get involved, please don’t hesitate to get in touch by emailing
There are various ways in which you can support our work:


Volunteer / We are always on the lookout for people with skills or experience in the law, therapeutic activities, or adult education, to help us bring our branches to life.

Partnerships / If your organisation works with refugees and asylum seekers and you would like to work together, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Donate to us
Donating is the easiest and most direct way in which you can support our operations and help us bring hope to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. You can make a donation via the button below.


The Cotton Tree Trust is dedicated to the memory of Jack Cigman.

If you would like to find out more about the Cotton Tree Trust, please get in touch at

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The Cotton Tree Trust is registered with the Charity Commission. Charity no. 1172069
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