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Why the bond between Mali and Moncton is so strong

University of Moncton recruiter Cheick Konate, left, on the campus with students Idrissa Dembele, 22, and Assa Traore, 18. , on Friday January 18, 2013. (Please credit to Globe and Mail without photographer's name)

Cheick Konate is the recruiter, selling Moncton and its university as a safe place of learning to the children of the elite of Mali. Much credit goes to him for the diaspora of Malians that has sprung up in this city of 100,000 in the middle of the Maritimes.

Mr. Konate, 28, graduated from the University of Moncton in 2007 with a degree in finance and has been working part-time since then for the French-language university. When he started school here there were just eight other Malian students.

For Malian parents, sending their kids to school in Canada is like a Canadian parent sending theirs to Harvard or Columbia, he says. There are 101 full-time Malian students attending the university this year, up from only 35 in 2008-2009.

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Mr. Konate is preparing to return to Mali in the next few weeks for an education fair, and he has a lot on his mind. The war in Mali's north has the students from his homeland worried for their families. They want Canada to do more.

"Canada has to make a difference because the terrorist problem is not for Mali, it is for everybody," he says about Canada's commitment of one C-17 transport plane for just one week. "If Canada can do for Afghanistan, why not Mali? It's the same situation, it's the same terrorist."

Assa Traore, 18, a second-year computer-science student, was sold on Moncton by Mr. Konate's pitch to her high-school class in Mali. Coming from a desert country, she remembers marvelling at all the trees when she first arrived.

The daughter of a banker and businesswoman, she is able to go home to visit for the summer. While her parents live in Bamako, she has relatives in the troubled region. "We can't do anything; we can just cry and pray," she says.

But on Saturday, she, Mr. Konate and others are planning to walk from City Hall to the French consulate to show their support for France's intervention and emphasize that the Harper government should become more involved.

Idrissa Dembele is walking, too. The 22-year-old, third-year finance student came to study in Moncton because he heard "it was a small place." He has fit in well; he has a car and a part-time job at a call centre.

He and his fellow Malian students who were interviewed note that there are fewer "distractions" in Moncton compared to Montreal or Quebec City because of its size.

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But now, the distractions are in his country, where he is concerned about his family and friends. "I don't want these gunmen to establish a base in Mali because there will be no law, no respect of human life … I don't want that for Mali," he says.

The bonds between Mali and Moncton were solidified in 1999 when Moncton was the host city for the Francophonie Summit. Earlier that year, Governor-General Roméo LeBlanc, who was from the region, became the first vice-regal representative to visit Mali and he had former Malian president Alpha Konaré over to his cottage on the Northumberland Strait for a barbecue.

"We knew that a lot of foreign ministers, prime ministers and presidents from francophone Africa were in Moncton so they kind of discovered the university," says Yvon Fontaine, the former president of the university. He took over in 2000 and retired last year.

"Mali was probably the key one [country] that we started with," he recalled about how the university's international-recruitment strategy began. "And, frankly, we had very good students from there. We weren't in a position to offer big scholarships, so the people that would come … were kind of the elite of the country, in terms of people from government or private business."

In 2003, then-president Amadou Toumani Touré's daughter, Mabo, graduated from the university. Mr. Fontaine didn't even know at first that she was a student, but began to build a relationship with her father. He came on a private visit for her graduation and was awarded an honorary degree in 2008. He was ousted from his position last March in a military coup.

Ms. Traore, meanwhile, says that students are now asking about what is happening in her country: "We don't want to be known like this. We want to be known as a beautiful country and not a country of war."

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