Slum boy to anti-slavery crusader
Global nomad finds freedom in seeking justice for others
Naresh Kumar knows first-hand how the odds are stacked against the poor. Growing up in a slum in Chennai, India, dreaming of a way out of poverty, he is now a global nomad pushing himself to the limit to bring freedom to the oppressed.
More than a rags-to-riches tale, his life is a story of providence, perseverance and the pursuit of freedom.
Raised a Hindu, Naresh’s family moved to a poor neighbourhood where the only high school was run by Christian missionaries.
“For my parents it was just another school,” he says. “For me, it was like a life-changing experience.”
“[I was] on my knees, crying like a baby, accepting the Lord.” – Naresh Kumar
Within a year of attending classes in a mud-floored hut, Naresh had been touched by the witness of the missionaries – including a Queensland teacher. The 14-year-old was intrigued: here were men and women who had given up affluent lives to make their home in an Indian slum. Why would they do such a thing?
In Naresh’s world, prayer and gods were all about “fear or favour”; religion was a performance to avoid punishment or to obtain blessing. Yet here at this humble missionary school, he learned of grace and Jesus’s unconditional love.
After eight months of reading the Bible, praying and exploring Christianity, Naresh was “on my knees, crying like a baby, accepting the Lord.”
The transformation in his behaviour and attitude was plain for all to see. He went from chewing tobacco and beating up kids to getting good grades.
Naresh became the first in his family to attend university. He was a scholarship student, didn’t own a computer and had to work side jobs to pay for textbooks.
“A lot of people would kill to be where I am. And here I am, walking away from all this.” – Naresh Kumar
As an engineering graduate in the Indian IT sector, getting an “on-site opportunity” to work abroad was the holy grail. Surrounded by competition, Naresh knew he had to go the extra mile to get the attention of his superiors. He toiled for five years in India before getting the longed-for offer to work in the United States.
For years Naresh lived the dream. He’d done his parents proud. He had the job, the car, the house. He had security. And yet he began to feel that “everything is in place but I don’t feel like I’m in the right place.” He sensed God was calling him to something more.
It wasn’t an easy decision to leave the US. It took him two weeks to hit the ‘send’ button on his resignation email.
“It’s not like I got to where I was magically. It took a lot of effort, growing up so hard, fighting all these battles – workplace in India, then workplace in the US,” Naresh explains. “A lot of people would kill to be where I am. And here I am, walking away from all this.”
“You have to leave somewhere to get somewhere. The God who has called us is faithful.”- Naresh Kumar
In the end, this truth gave him the peace to leave his comfortable life behind: “You have to leave somewhere to get somewhere. The God who has called us is faithful.”
Leaving Silicon Valley, Naresh eventually got to Nepal. It was there that a harrowing encounter revealed to him just how precious freedom could be.
In the streets of Kathmandu a man approached him, with two girls in tow.
“You can have both if you like, for a good price,” the man told Naresh – in broad daylight, protected by a culture of impunity. “You can share them round with your friends. If you’re scared of the cops you can call me.”
Trafficking wasn’t a new reality for Naresh. He’d been introduced to International Justice Mission’s (IJM) anti-slavery work at the 2013 “Code for the Kingdom” hackathon – a group of people tackling global issues from a Christian perspective. His team had built an award-winning app that enabled the IJM’s investigators to collect and securely wire intelligence from brothels and brick kilns to authorities.
But now, in a street in Nepal, trafficking was standing right in front of Naresh’s eyes in the form of two vulnerable girls. He felt completely helpless. “They looked so young, it broke my heart.”
Compelled to take action, Naresh has since brought his athletic and storytelling talents together in pursuit not of his own freedom but that of trafficking victims.
He knew from his time in the US that he loved running, loved putting his body on the line and seeing what he was physically and mentally capable of. Fifty-kilometre marathons became a 500km race across Tennessee. It was this event that revealed to Naresh the power of social media storytelling. A simple Facebook post reflecting on his race experience went viral.
“I still get hits to this day,” he says. “Tonnes of grammatical errors and typos. [But] it was authentic and original. It doesn’t matter to the world how fancy you write. It made me feel like I could really write, be a storyteller.”
After tandem-biking down the length of New Zealand for Tearfund NZ, Naresh landed in Australia for the Indian-Pacific Wheel Race in March.
“Is that the same kid who was riding a broken bicycle, wearing torn clothes?’”- Naresh Kumar
Remembering his earlier connection with IJM, he decided to raise funds for IJM Australia’s work fighting cybersex trafficking in Cebu in the Philippines and bonded labour slavery in Chennai. “I have read several case studies and success stories of IJM’s work especially in freeing people in South India, my native region and very close to my heart,” he says.
The poor boy from Chennai who gave up financial security ended up serving the impoverished in the community where he grew up. When the city flooded in 2015, leaving a million people homeless, Naresh raised $12,000 in six days for the relief effort. He’s now raised more than $6000 for IJM Australia, and his fundraising total currently sits at more than $300,000.
Naresh can hardly believe where God has led him. Nor can his family friends back in India. “They’re all in shock. They’re like, ‘Who is this guy? Is that the same kid who was riding a broken bicycle, wearing torn clothes?’”
Naresh’s life is peppered with little ironies like this. The scholarship kid now helping other kids. Perseverance alongside spontaneity in his character. Indian and American inflections in his accent.
“We read in the Bible that his mercies are new every morning. But for me it was new every moment.” – Naresh Kumar.
The tenacity that won him a university scholarship and a Silicon Valley job he now applies to endurance running and cycling for causes. He pushes his body to the limit physically for the sake of trafficked girls who have been robbed of all control over their own bodies.
Naresh now lives lightly, travelling alone but always making friends on the road. “I may have been solo, but definitely not unsupported,” he affirms of his gruelling journey across the Nullarbor, along the Great Ocean Road and through the Australian Alps. Often he slept on picnic benches or under the stars, but several times strangers provided food or a couch.
Not knowing where and when his next destination will be, he depends on the kindness of strangers. Naresh sees God’s provision constantly. “We read in the Bible that his mercies are new every morning. But for me it was new every moment.”
Arriving in Sydney after 24 days of riding deep into the night, Naresh had a notion of going to Queensland to share his story but wasn’t sure when that would materialise as he didn’t have money for the flight. Less than a week later, thanks to the generosity of a supporter, he was on the plane to Brisbane.
“Never been a planning guy. So ironical that I say that,” he admits, “because all my life, my career is all about project planning. But personally, I make zero plans. Let’s just do this, let’s just go – pretty much telling God, ‘All right, what do you have for me? I’m ready.’
The uncertainty of the future is exciting rather than stressful because Naresh knows he’s “in the dead centre of the will of God.” Naresh has found freedom for himself in following the Spirit, seeking justice for others. “I’m not just surviving,” he says. “I’m flourishing.”
Hsu-Ann Lee is Mobilisation Coordinator for International Justice Mission Australia.