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A therapist's generosity helps disabled teen, who fled Syrian war, begin to walk

Syrian teen

Physical therapist Paul Erwin, left, assists Syrian refugee Yousef Zein at Hershey Orthopedic & Spine Rehabilitation on July 24, 2019. Yousef's father, Ahmad Zein follows.

On top of bewildering language and cultural challenges refugee Yousef Zein encountered in Lancaster as a teen from war-torn Syria, he also couldn’t walk.

Born with a brittle bone condition, Yousef, 16, uses a wheelchair because of weakened, bowed and fracture-prone legs.

But Yousef has found that America is a land of opportunity and surprises, none greater than an Arabic-speaking physical therapist who has been treating him at no charge for a year and a half.

“Our goal is for you to walk again,” therapist Paul Erwin told Yousef on meeting him in February 2018, little more than a year after Yousef, his parents and three siblings were resettled in Lancaster.

Surgeries in Hershey and Philadelphia plus over 100 therapy sessions have made a difference. Yousef can now stand unassisted and walk haltingly using canes or a walker.

Erwin also treats Yousef’s sister, Mona, 22, a community college student who has a brittle bone condition but fewer problems.

As fighting in Syria escalated in December 2012, Yousef’s father, Ahmad Zein, a small, white-haired man who speaks with a quiet intensity, decided his family should flee to Turkey from their home near Aleppo. Four years later they came to Lancaster.

Zein, 53, who served a guest his wife’s baklava in their tidy home on Fremont Street, struggled to explain how he feels about the hope Erwin has given his children.

“This is one of the things we dreamed of, getting proper medical treatment for Yousef,” he said through an interpreter. “Words will never be able to express the gratitude I have.”

Syrian teen

Ahmad Zein, left, holds the foot of his son, Yousef, while physical therapist Paul Erwin treats the teen July 24, 2019, at Hershey Orthopedic & Spine Rehabilitation.


Arabic spoken

Erwin spent 13 months learning Arabic at a military language institute before the Marine Corps sent the academically inclined infantryman to Iraq, where he served from October 2006 to May 2007. He co-founded Hershey Orthopedic & Spine Rehabilitation in 2009, opening an East Lampeter Township office in 2012.

It was a busy day a year and a half ago when Zein arrived with Yousef for his son’s first appointment at the physical therapy office on William Penn Way and asked without much hope if anyone spoke Arabic.

“I do,” Erwin replied, and it was the start of a fond relationship.

Erwin’s practice doesn’t accept government-funded Medicaid, the coverage the Zein family has. But Erwin saw the challenges Yousef faced, including the language barrier, and decided to treat him and his sister.

“I just felt it was something we should do,” Erwin said, and he began twice-a-week treatments at no charge.

Erwin said his early focus was strengthening Yousef’s core and leg muscles. He moved on to exercises that would help with everyday activities.

“Month to month, his standing ability would improve, his strength would increase,” Erwin said.

The work pushed Yousef, fatiguing him after a day at school.

“Maybe at times we had to give him a little kick in the butt,” Erwin said. “But he’s always laughing and smiling.”

On Wednesday, after a long absence following surgery in April, Yousef, a dark-haired teen with a broad face, laid on a treatment table, and Erwin pressed and rubbed his leg muscles.

“Do you have any pain in your muscles?” Erwin asked in Arabic. Yousef said only soreness.

Yousef then stood and with a walker shuffled to the other end of the room, covering about 40 feet, as Erwin kept watch.

Syrian teen

Syrian refugee Yousef Zein, 16, talks about overcoming brittle bone disease during an interview in his Lancaster home on Wednesday, July 3, 2019.


Big dreams

Yousef faces years of therapy to improve his mobility, but the rising junior at McCaskey High School is not discouraged. He’s pleased with his progress, and he dreams of walking unassisted. But his dreams don’t stop there.

His favorite subjects are algebra and biology, and he wants to go to medical school with the aim of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

“One day I’ll be fully independent, and one day I will be able to give back and support people who are in need of help, just as I received support,” Yousef said through an interpreter. “I will have that debt forever. I will always seek to help others.”