A second chance for Yerlan

A UNICEF-supported centre in Kazakhstan helps teenagers transform their lives and stay out of juvenile detention

By Dinara Saliyeva and Zarina Nurmukhambetova
A young man sits across a desk from a woman
UNICEF Kazakhstan
03 October 2017

Yerlan* stands out in a crowd – a natural leader who is often the centre of attention. As the oldest brother of eight siblings, he has always been good at mobilizing and organizing people, but had little opportunity to put that talent to good use, until now.

Yerlan and his siblings grew up in poverty. Their mother – the sole breadwinner – was often away, working hard to make ends meet. The family moved in with grandparents, sharing an old and small house. Left without adult supervision, Yerlan joined a local gang and it wasn’t long before he was in a gang fight, wounding another boy with a knife.

Yerlan was sentenced to probation rather than juvenile detention and referred to Syr Ulandary, a prevention and rehabilitation centre for children and youth in Kyzylorda. Supported by the European Union and UNICEF through a joint programme that promotes justice for children, the centre provides legal advice, psychological support and coaching programmes.

Yerlan seizes his second chance.

“When we first met Yerlan, he was very defensive and rude,” says Saule Abildayeva, manager of the centre. “He didn’t understand what was happening and what he could expect.”

The centre’s psychologists spotted Yerlan's leadership skills immediately and also helped him discover a talent for singing. Realising that Yerlan lacked a close bond with his parents they worked closely with his grandmother and, together, they helped him channel his talents into his studies and community work. He joined singing lessons and took classes to catch up with his college programme.

Yerlan started to take part in college activities, including a concert. His mother, unaware of his newfound talent for singing, was overwhelmed when she watched her son perform.

“You should have seen Yerlan and his mother at that concert,” says Saule Abildayeva. “Eyes locked on each other the entire time. At the end of the concert, she looked at me and said that we helped her to get her son back.” 

Yerlan recalls the new feeling of being both proud and valued.

“I am blessed to have had the chance to change my life”

“Going through rehabilitation, I had realized that what I did was wrong and I was living a foolish life. Had it been any different, I could have gone back to the same gang, same people and maybe ended up a lot worse.

As he lives in an area with a high crime rate, Yerlan wants to bring his peers to the centre and encourage them to take part in its activities. He is also concerned about his siblings, wanting them to have a better life.

“My goal is to successfully graduate from college, help my siblings choose the right priorities and become a singer,” he says. 

Yerlan had a second chance to change his life and he took it. So did his mother when she began to bond more closely with him and her other children. The family still faces financial difficulties, but they feel stronger, because they support each other.

*Yerlan's name has been changed to protect his identity.

Yerlan photo singing
UNICEF Kazakhstan
Yerlan plays the guitar for social workers at Syr Ulandary, a prevention and rehabilitation centre for children and youth in Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan.