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The Cotton Tree Trust is a newly formed charity for the benefit of asylum seekers and other refugees and their families who are seeking or have obtained the right to remain in England and Wales.

In 1792, a group of freed African-American slaves arrived on the shore of Sierra Leone. They found a giant tree sheltering birds and animals, and held a thanksgiving service beneath it.

Today a huge Cotton Tree stands near the Supreme Court building in Freetown and many Sierra Leonians believe this is the original tree where their ancestors prayed.

The Cotton Tree Trust takes its name from real people, men, women and children, who undertook a terrifying sea journey. Freed slaves from America. They fought with the British, who sent them to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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.

Our Trustees

Ruth Cigman

RUTH is Honorary Senior Research Associate in Philosophy of Education at the UCL Institute of Education. She has taught philosophy in a variety of academic and non-academic settings, including the Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile.

Michael Mark

MICHAEL was a tribunal judge for over 18 years. Since retiring, he has worked in a Citizens’ Advice Bureau and has become a trustee of a charity assisting benefits claimants. He has also helped refugees to prepare their cases and set out their histories clearly and consistently.

Sohail Jannesari

SOHAIL works on migrant and refugee issues with organisations across London such as the Red Cross, the Iranian Welfare Association, and NNLS Drop-In. He is also undertaking a PhD looking at the effects of the asylum process on mental health.

Tatiana Garavito

TATIANA worked as the Executive Director of IRMO and LAWRS until 2015; she currently works as an organiser and facilitator with communities of colour across the country. She is also studying for an MA in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy.

Joel Rose

JOEL is a charity professional with over 10 years’ experience as both chief executive and trustee for national physical and mental health charities. He specialises in helping smaller organisations grow and develop so that they can do their best for the people they care about.

Our Team

Kiki Betts-Dean

KIKI moved to the UK from Australia to complete her education in 2009. Since graduating, she has worked in classical music and as a freelance translator before entering the charity sector. She is delighted to be able to use her organisational skills to benefit others.

Michael Mugishangyezi

MICHAEL is a passionate and creative human being from the divided and politically chaotic African Great Lakes region. As an asylum seeker in the UK, he has spoken publicly at the House of Commons, and has shared his story through projects at the Young Vic and the British Museum.

Arnold Christo-Leigh

ARNOLD was born in Sierra Leone, and in 1989 he came to the UK from Nigeria as an asylum seeker. He received his status in 2015 and has been working for many years in a voluntary capacity with people facing similar hardships to his own.

Judith Ahikire

JUDITH is from Uganda and has lived in the UK for over 15 years. She works with a refugee and asylum seeker charity as both an administrator and bookkeeper and is involved in an array of voluntary work. She has a passion for engaging with and helping people.

Vincent Truter

VINCENT is a cross-disciplinary creative director and social entrepreneur. His passion for spaces has seen him design public experiences in the form of museums, travelling exhibitions, and heritage sites. He loves bringing brands that do good to life – like the Cotton Tree Trust.

The Cotton Tree Trust takes an integrated approach to the telling of personal stories.  We have three 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 does not give immigration advice, but we provide 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 and ‘myth and 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.


We enable asylum seekers and other refugees and their families to acquire skills (e.g. language and IT) that will enhance their prospects in the United Kingdom.

We work with service providers to offer training and skills development to refugees, including language and IT training.  The objective is to enable them to express and communicate of their stories, adapt to life in the United Kingdom and improve their prospects of obtaining work when they are entitled to work here.


We also offer talks in schools to educate children and young people about the lived experience of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. These are targeted to different age groups in primary and secondary schools, or if required, may be offered to teachers without children.

Our talks are given by our team members Arnold and Michael, and they take place in and around London. We always allow plenty of time for Q&A, and aim to create a comfortable atmosphere in which children aren’t afraid to ask difficult questions.

If you would like to host a talk at your school, please contact Kiki Betts-Dean,

We will actively engage our community of support and lobby funders to bring help to asylum seekers and other refugees and their families who are seeking or have obtained the right to remain in England and Wales.

For more information about how you can support the Cotton Tree Trust, do get in touch at


1/ In kind / We are an open community and will gladly exchange resources and services in support of our refugees and asylum seekers.

2/ Community support / Above and beyond the core branches of our offering we want to actively engage and create a community of support by and for refugees and asylum seekers.


3/ Support in donation / While we have raised the initial funds necessary to kick-start our activities, we will
need support in bringing our branches to life.


4/ Support in skills / We are building a team of collaborators that can contribute their skills to develop our training, legal and heal-and-grow offerings.

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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