When the 7.5 earthquake and tsunami hit his home in Sulawesi, Indonesia, Aprisal Malale was asleep more than 9,000 miles away.
Malale was just a few weeks into his fall 2018 graduate program at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy when he woke up to a torrent of messages and alerts on his phone, all of which were alarming.
He slowly learned more about the horrific events that had taken place the night before. Indonesian authorities would ultimately state that at least 4,547 people had lost their lives as a result of the disaster, and more than 173,000 people were displaced from their homes.
Malale, now 32, tried calling his parents, but could not get through. On that unseasonably cold morning, he felt powerless, and so very far away from home.
“Everything seemed like it was falling down in front of me. I didn’t know if my mom ate that day, did they [my/his parents] eat anything at all? Everything went scarce, you couldn’t get water, no electricity, no gas. No store was open because they were afraid of robberies,” Malale told Direct Relief, about his thoughts in the days after the earthquake.
He took the day off, but all he could think about was how to get in touch with parents.
After what seemed like interminable hours, he finally got in touch, but only for a few seconds. It was enough time to know that they survived, but further details were scant.
Despite avoiding the worst, Malale was still trying to acclimate to a foreign country, improve his English, and study at a top program, all while trying to deal with almost unimaginable stress.
“It really brought me to the lowest level,” he said.
Helped along by fellow Indonesian students, the university’s support staff, and food delivered by friends — after they found out he had barely eaten for a week — Malale, a Fulbright Scholar, was able to get through that difficult time, if only “barely,” he said.
But all the while, and even as he planned to find a meaningful summer internship, he determined that he would do anything possible to get back home before the following year’s classes began.
After hearing a presentation by Direct Relief’s director of research and analysis, the Ann Arbor-based Andrew Schroeder, Malale decided to apply to intern at Direct Relief’s Santa Barbara, California, headquarters, which were at least a bit on the way back home.
He was accepted, but wouldn’t be based in California.
Malale’s academic counselor told him that the opportunity being presented to him was not a regular program, but one created by a specific need: he would be posted in his hometown of Palu, managing Direct Relief’s efforts to assist in the rebuilding of Sulawesi.
“At first I didn’t believe it,” recalled Malale, with a smile. “This is probably my mom and dad’s prayer, because they know their son is struggling in the U.S and he wants to see us, so he can come and see that everything’s okay.”
Returning to Rebuild
Malale’s mission was to assist with due diligence, evaluation, analysis and communications for the projects that Direct Relief is funding in Central Sulawesi with earthquake recovery and health system reconstruction. To this end, he was also tasked with helping arrange the signing of a memorandum of understanding between various departments of the Indonesian government and Direct Relief about the rebuilding of six public health clinics and a hospital in Sulawesi.
After an orientation at Direct Relief’s headquarters, he flew to Jakarta and then to Sulawesi. Driving in, he said, his initial impression of Palu was not much different than when he left. Many reconstruction projects had been underway for months and, at first glance, things were progressing.
However, his parents soon revealed the reality while touring around the area. The roads had been repaired by local workers, and shoddily, since they had to do it with minimal government support. In the liquefaction areas of Palu City, he saw ruins and flags marking places where people had been buried alive. There were also new rivers cutting across the landscape.
“Peoples’ passion to be in the community was not there anymore, because many people lost their homes, their family, many people don’t know where the bodies are, because of the liquefaction. They’re still mourning,” he said.
Malale wrote in a final report that areas in the province, “are in complete chaos, hopeless, and depressing to see, even after 8 months.”
“People are in very desperate conditions, crying for help. They don’t have the certainty provided by the government,” he said.
Malale said Palu is a tight-knit community — “there are no strangers,” he said — and so he immediately got to work on his main goals, even as he had an eye towards larger action.
“God gave me this opportunity, there must be something more,” he said.
Malale used his past work experience in the country’s Ministry of Finance to audit budgets, building layouts, and other details, trying to ensure that as many projects could be funded as possible. An awkward moment came when he picked up on some locals, who had expected a foreigner, trying to pad the budget.
Even though the amount wasn’t much in dollars, Malale felt strongly that such acts should be vigorously opposed, both because of the zero-sum nature of aid and a larger principles.
“Coming from the U.S., I was trying to teach them something they didn’t know, about best practices, honesty, integrity, transparency. It’s missing in my local government, I’m not ashamed to say that,” he said.
A Different Kind of Trip
Despite the heavy, stressful workload, Malale made time to visit friends and was nourished by his mother’s ever-present cooking. He gained back what he lost in September, returning to the U.S. almost 20 pounds heavier, he said.
Reflecting on his experience, Malale said his main takeaway was related to trust.
“I learned that you have to trust people who you don’t know in a disaster situation so that a project can move forward, even though there are some people trying to make a benefit for themselves,” he said.
“You have to put suspicions behind, but keep on track of anything they say to you,” Malale said.
Though proud of what he accomplished during his weeks in Sualwesi, Malale said there is much more to be done.
“People are reaching this situation where they don’t ask [the government] anymore, they don’t beg anymore because they’re just fed up,” he said, adding that some people in Sulawesi are still without permanent housing or work, and have to subsist on the equivalent of 70 cents per person per day.
Despite this, he said, they are not defeated.
“I still see hope in the people of central Sulawesi. They’re struggling, but they always say ‘Maybe next month we’ll have the money or next week we will have someone coming to do an interview about a permanent house.’”