"Helping One is Better than Helping None"

By Cathleen Falsani 1-24-2012
Roya Shams.  Toronto Star photo by Paul Watson.
Roya Shams spends the day at Ottawa's Ashbury College. She begins classes this week. Toronto Star photo by Paul Watson.

"Save one life, and you save the world entire."

~ The Talmud


As journalists, we are trained to be observers. Not only first, but only.

It is our job, we are told, to report the facts and never to insert ourselves into the situations we are observing, never to become part of the story itself by influencing the events as they unfold.

When I was a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, I was required to take a course in ethics. I don't recall much, at all, from that class except for a heated discussion one evening over a hypothetical situation posed to the students: If you were a photographer driving to an assignment for your newspaper, and you saw a man who was about to jump off the side of a bridge, what would you do? Would you stop and intervene? Or would you stop and take pictures while whatever was gong to happen happened?

The class was divided in our response. Some of us held to the strict journalistic ethos of being the objective observer. Those students said they would get out and start shooting. The rest of us said, quite passionately, that of course we would get out and try to stop the man from leaping to his death. A heated exchange ensued. I recall saying that, while I believed being a journalist was my vocation and my spiritual calling, for that matter, I was, first and foremost, a human being. And I am responsible for others, including the hypothetical jumper.

In the nearly 20 years I have been a working journalist, occasionally I have been tempted to intervene in the stories I have been assigned to cover. Most of the time, I have not, and that was probably the right choice. But once upon a time, about four years ago, I crossed the line. In a big way. I intervened because the life of another person was at stake and I knew that my calling was to be human, to react, to help, to do whatever I could to save a life. It's the best decision I've ever made. Hands down.

As I read a remarkable story in the Toronto Star newspaper, I wondered if the paper's veteran foreign correspondent, Paul Watson, now feels the same way.


Earlier this month, Watson, who is Canada's only Pulitzer Prize-winner, arrived in Toronto from Kandahar, Afghanistan with a very special package: a 17-year-old Afghan girl  forced to flee her homeland, in the reporter's care, to escape certain death at the hands of Taliban assassins.

Roya Shams is the daughter of Haji Sayed Gulab Shah, a police colonel in Kandahar who was shot to death during a hunt for the Taliban leader Mullah Qahar last year. Unlike so many of his countrymen, Shah believed that his daughter had the right to an education. At the time of her father's death, Roya was violating Taliban rule by attending school. Soon after her father's death, Roya began receiving death threats. She was forced to leave school and go into hiding, rarely leaving her home.

Watson, who has covered many wars and seen the worst of humanity (including the Black Hawk Down disaster in Somalia) up close and personal, was in Kandahar on assignment for the Star, and came to know Roya and her story. The girl's mighty spirit moved the reporter deeply, and, as he learned more, Watson grew convinced that Roya's life was in very real danger.

So Watson did what he had been trained not to do. He broke all the laws of journalism. He got involved.

He also told Roya's story in the pages of the Star. Readers responded with overwhelming generosity, raising thousands of dollars to pay for the teen's education in Canada. When it looked like the chances of Roya making it to Canada were starting to run out, Watson kept at it, informing the paper's readers of developments and setbacks, until the doors opened and it was time for Roya to make her escape.

In a first person account written by the Star's editor in chief, Michael Cooke, who traveled to Afghanistan with Watson to help Roya escape to Canada last week — a journey fraught with danger and uncertainty — Watson explains why he did what he did:  

“I've never felt compelled to step out of the reporter's role to help someone this way. This time, with this person, I did,” Watson says. “Roya is an extraordinary young woman, the daughter of a father who fought the same fight Canadians were fighting and dying for. Knowing Roya made me think helping one is better than helping none.”  

Listen to Cooke tell the story of getting Roya out of Afghanistan in the video below:

In his first-person article in the Star, Cooke explained why the newspaper itself also got involved in rescuing Roya and bringing her to Canada, a country that has lost 158 soldiers in the war in Afghanistan: 

For seven years, Canada has spilled blood in Kandahar.

Our goal was to help Afghanistan build a stable democracy from the failed stone-age state it had become after decades of war.

The Star wanted to continue our country's investment in building a better future for Afghans.

That is why, for the first time in its 120-year history, the Star took this extraordinary step of leading an effort to rescue a student from a war zone: to bring one of Afghanistan's bright young people to Canada to further her education, away from the fear and bombs and bullets so she can return one day to help make her country a better place.

With the continued generosity of our readers, we hope this gesture will help ensure our soldiers did not die in vain.

The Star is committed to helping Roya finish her high school education and graduate from university.



We media creatures are an easy target for criticism. It's not without cause. Sometimes we do get the story wrong. We make mistakes, get sloppy or don't bother to keep our biases in check.

Most of the time, though, we do our jobs as well as we can, working long hours trying to get the facts straight and present a story as fully, and as truthfully, as possible.

Occasionally, though, one of us flagrantly breaks the rules. A journalist lets humanity get the better of her. And it changes everything for the worse.

In some instances, breaking the rules means telling (or selling) a lie that helps elect dodgy politicians or leads a nation into an unjust war.

But then, every once in a great while, a journalist's humanity gets the very best of him and ends up rescuing a child from the jaws of war and certain death.

Later this week. Roya begins classes at Ottawa's Ashbury College, one of Canada's premiere schools for girls. 

Who knows what she will become now that she has the chance to live, learn and flourish?

Roya might help bring about world peace or create more just laws (in her native Afghanistan, to which she hopes to return some day, or abroad.) She might inspire us with great works of art, write the next breakthrough code in computer technology, help heal us with scientific discoveries or soothe our souls with beautiful music.

No matter what she does, or who she becomes, I believe Roya will make this world a better place.

And I am absolutely certain that Paul Watson already has.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is the mother of one child, her son, Vasco, whom she met in 2007 in Malawi, Africa while on assignment as religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.


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