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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Youth Finds Kyrgyz Tough Love

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Vladimir Vakurin has five sons, a restless blond bunch. With 5-year-old twins Pasha and Lyosha in the back of the car, he is picking up the older boys at a canal outside Bishkek where they've gone bungee jumping.

When they squeeze into the car, all wet and excited, it turns out that one of them speaks Russian with an accent.

Peter Haan, 15, has lived with the Vakurins for a year. He is a boy from prosperous Germany being helped by a family in one of the poorest countries in Central Asia.

The Vakurins took custody of Peter for two years as part of the Life Jugendhilfe Project, a German state-subsidized program aimed at helping troubled youth. Started six years ago by Gerd Lichtenberger, a former children's home director, it gives teenagers an opportunity to live with a family abroad. It gets them out of their dysfunctional environment and gives them a place to feel accepted.

"Peter went to Kyrgyzstan because his other option was to go to jail," Lichtenberger, 48, said by telephone from Bochum, North Westfalia.

Peter's mother died of a drug overdose when he was nine and his father is in prison for drug dealing. Peter first met his future foster father at a police detention center where he was being held for theft. He constantly ran away from children's homes.

"I had never heard of this country before," said Peter, a fidgety blond who smiles a lot, as he sat in the yard of the Vakurin house on the outskirts of Bishkek. When he arrived last September, he didn't know the multiplication table and couldn't find his native Germany on a map.

A year later, he speaks decent Russian and helps Vakurin run his car repair shop. In the fall, he will start working on basic school subjects with a German-speaking teacher.

"It's the first time Peter is studying. He's learned everything from the street," said Lichtenberger, who visits Peter and Jan, another German teenager living in Bishkek, every three months with a psychologist. "His progress is better than I ever expected."

Vakurin, 43, sees his goal as changing Peter's attitude. "The main thing is to help him get used to living in a family where his problems are our problems, and his joys are our joys," he said. "I tell him: These guys are your brothers. When you start living independently, we'll still be there to help you."

It is taking Peter a while to get used to his new situation. He misses his German girlfriend, to whom he can't even write because her parents dismiss him as a hooligan. He likes Kyrgyzstan, though, especially the mountains.

He wants to become a mason one day, but right now Peter has to overcome his laziness and inability to concentrate, says Vakurin. He is still more interested in "television, dances and girls" than reading, says Vakurin, and often has to be woken up in the morning with a glass of cold water splashed in the face.

Vakurin, however, is the kind of person who knows how to earn a teenager's respect. The former engineering professor was a champion mountain climber in his younger years and used to head a student climbing group. He says he treats teenagers as equals, giving them advice and motivation, and punishing them only when there is a good reason.

Lichtenberger met Vakurin in 1997 when he visited Kevin, the first German teenager to live in Bishkek. Altogether, Lichtenberger has found temporary homes in Canada, Chile and Turkey for 40 troubled kids from German children's homes, jails and psychiatric hospitals. Sixty percent return home rehabilitated, he says.

Raising five boys is not easy. Vakurin says it's the school of the mountains that helps him endure the difficulties. "It gets so hard sometimes that I would give up if I didn't know the feeling you have when everyone's life depends on you," he said.

Marion Carrel contributed to this story.