Just a few years ago, Nguyen Ngoc Cuc was eking out a meager farming existence with his mother on the coast of Vietnam. As the child of a Vietnamese mother and a black American serviceman, he was the object of discrimination -- denied education and training, and often beaten by other children.

Now he and two other young Amerasian men are learning to be auto mechanics at a Southeast Washington garage with the help of its three Vietnamese owners, who have made it their mission to help Amerasians and other Vietnamese refugees succeed in America.

Although Cuc says he occasionally feels the ill will of whites and Vietnamese in this country, he feels "much happier and much more free" in the United States.

"I don't let {discrimination} bother me," he said recently through an interpreter. "I will just try to get a profession so people won't look down on me."

Cuc, 20, Trung Toan, 23, and Le Ngoc Phuoc, 18, are learning skilled work at Tune Up Kit of Capitol Hill, at Eighth Street and Virginia Avenue SE. They are employed by Long Dinh, Le Dung and Le Tuy -- all Vietnamese businessmen who arrived in this country a decade or more ago. Now that their business is thriving, the trio say they have vowed to help those who have come after them.

"I look at them as myself," Dinh, 35, said of the three young men who work for him and his partners. "I came with nothing, without knowing English, no money, no relations. We started from the bottom."

"We know what it's like to not have a place to work, to be on the street," said Tuy, 34. "They get stuck, they call us. They know they belong to this shop."

Since immigration laws changed in 1987, the number of Amerasians and their relatives entering the United States has totaled about 22,000, according to figures from the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement. About 2,000 of them settled in the Washington area.

The war-era children of American men and Vietnamese women were left behind when the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1975. Scorned by the Vietnamese as half-breeds and reminders of a bitter conflict, many of the children suffered years of physical and psychological abuse in Vietnam. Most arrived in the United States with little education, few skills and scant knowledge of English. Because help from government programs is limited, Amerasians face an uncertain future in the United States, community activists say.

For the three young men, their bosses are helping to fill the gap. While they work as helpers at the garage, making about $4.50 an hour, Dinh said, they also are learning to be mechanics, and even are being prodded to improve their English. Lunch hours are spent learning English words for auto parts, going over technical manuals.

"In the work area, I always say, 'What is this? What is it called? What is wrong? Describe the job, do it in English,' " Tuy said.

Along with English lessons come heavy doses of the work ethic.

"I tell them, in life, they should never quit," Dung said.

Dung says he was reminded one recent morning of the need for programs aimed at Amerasians when he opened the doors to the shop and found "10 guys sitting right in front of my door."

The 10 Amerasians were so desperate that they offered to work without pay in return for training, he said.

Regretfully, Dung said, he had to turn them down. The small business, which has 10 to 16 employees at any given time, cannot take on so many inexperienced people.

Dung said he keeps in close contact with the mothers of all three of his young employees, trying to ensure that they avoid the temptations of drugs, alcohol or gang life.

He and his colleagues also hope to set an example for the Vietnamese community, in which cultural tradition centers on the family rather than broader social activism.

"The Vietnamese community needs to recognize that if you don't recognize your fellows, they won't recognize you," Tuy said. "If the Vietnamese community doesn't do something and the government doesn't do something" to help young people, "it will haunt them," he said. "You'll always have to have a gun in your house."

Reaching out to Vietnamese youth is particularly important because of the fear of gangs in the community, Tuy said. This year, the Washington area Vietnamese community was rocked by a series of home invasion robberies, in which armed gangs of young Vietnamese men broke into houses and terrorized the residents while searching for cash and other valuables.

Cuc and his colleagues are only the most recent Vietnamese refugees to work at Tune Up Kit. The three partners estimate that they have helped nearly 40 Vietnamese and other immigrants learn auto mechanics. Some have gone on to work in other garages, Dinh said, while others have returned to school or gone on to other jobs.

The three owners said they try to act as older brothers to the young men.

Toan, who lives with his mother and sister in a Landover apartment, said he knows little about his father except that he was Hispanic. "I knew his name but I forgot," he said.

The garage owners said Toan has been uncertain about working at the garage, sometimes staying home, voicing a wish to move to Chicago, where some friends live.

Recently, he returned to work and the owners said they want to give him another chance. "Life is better here. I want to be a mechanic," he said.

To own a garage someday is the dream of Phuoc, who has adopted the American name Michael.

When he was 7, he started to work, pushing carts at a market in Saigon for a few pennies a day, he said. He also worked as a mason and as a mechanic at a plastics factory. His mother sold candy at the market. Together, they barely made enough to get by, he said.

Toan said he wants to find his father, but will wait. "I want to improve myself first. I want to be a real adult like an American," he said. "I'm used to being fatherless. There's no immediate need."