Published: May 2, 2022 By

Ilham SiddiqIlham Siddiq survived the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami and is now using his firsthand disaster knowledge to evaluate the effectiveness of recovery policies.

Siddiq, a civil engineering PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder and native of Indonesia, has earned a prestigious United States Agency for International Development / Habitat for Humanity fellowship to investigate the effectiveness of long-term recovery initiatives, with a focus on the 2004 disaster, which took the lives of more than 200,000 people.

“This research is very important to the humanitarian shelter and settlement sector because billions of dollars were invested into the humanitarian and recovery efforts,” Siddiq said. “To go back and know what worked and what was not effective is really important. We can learn lessons so humanitarian organizations and other actors can manage their programs better.”

Siddiq is passionate about this issue as a survivor of the disaster. He has a unique viewpoint and desire for better disaster risk reduction and post-disaster reconstruction.

“My whole village was wiped clean by the tsunami,” Siddiq said. “There was nothing left to see, just flat clean ground. My mom and my grandma went away with the tsunami. I was the oldest in my family to survive, which made me the head of my family.”

His fellowship will focus on long-term recovery efforts, particularly with housing and jobs. This summer he will spend time in Indonesia to conduct field observations and meet with residents in nine villages across three municipalities. He will study areas that have had strong, moderate, and weak recoveries based on housing and livelihood indicators to determine factors that lead to the different recovery outcomes.

Growing up in a rural part of Indonesia, Siddiq never imagined he would become an engineer, much less earn a PhD in the United States. As a child, his village had no electricity and he did not begin to learn English until age 12. Today, he speaks it as well as any American.

“People say, ‘You sound like you’re from Kansas,’” Siddiq said.

Siddiq has always been interested in learning and the larger world. As a child, he was fascinated with the foreign languages on milk can labels, and when his family moved from their village to Banda Aceh, the capital of his province, he gained access to the internet for the first time.

“That was a game changer,” he said. “I had access to YouTube, Wikipedia, all kinds of stuff and I would lose myself in Wikipedia rabbit holes.”

He earned his undergraduate degree in civil engineering in Indonesia and began working at a disaster research institute in Aceh. It gave him the opportunity to network with international experts who visited the center. He connected with a group of researchers from Georgia Tech and was able to earn a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the Atlanta institution for his master’s degree.

A conference in Aceh shortly before he left for Atlanta also gave him his first connection to CU Boulder and his now-PhD advisor, Amy Javernick-Will, whose research focuses on global engineering, disaster recovery and resiliency.

“I met a CU Boulder PhD graduate at the conference,” Siddiq said. “I had seen his research abstract and struck up a conversation about his work. We talked for three hours until the hotel staff kicked us out. He said I needed to work with Amy Javernick-Will, his professor, and that he would put me in touch with her. Now I’m doing my PhD with her.”

Siddiq is grateful for the opportunities he has had and is eager to contribute to disaster recovery research that can help communities in the future.

“I have the combination of lived experience and theoretical knowledge,” he said. “I’m passionate about improving resilience in vulnerable communities, especially those that are low-resourced around the world. It’s a rewarding issue to work on. I think I was born to do this.”