Dubai expat rises from horrors to find success


She couldn’t find a job in the UAE and was down to her last dirham when she made her desperate visa run on Kish Island; working odd jobs for scraps of food and seeing her friend commit suicide from hopelessness.

These are just some of the horrors that Dubai expat Vagelyn Tumbaga-Federico, 36, faced when she first travelled abroad to find work more than a decade ago.

“Don’t give up when things get hard, but work harder when you think of giving up. I didn’t have an easy start, but I remained steadfast, and kept dreaming and moving forward,” Vagelyn told in an interview at Dusit Thani Dubai where she is the Human Resources Director.

She appears relaxed, exuding a quiet confidence that is neither presumptuous nor boastful as she guides the Expat Media team to the 24th level where we would have her photoshoot. “When my story first came out on Maalaala Mo Kaya, the hotel was suddenly full of people looking for me to apply for jobs or to take souvenir photos with me,” she said, amused. Certainly, the self-confessed “farm girl” has come a long way.

“I came here to Dubai on a visit visa 12 years ago in the midst of the hottest summer season with lots of hope and high expectations. The 2005 movie, ‘Dubai’, encouraged and inspired me to come to here. My family was in a deep financial crisis that time and our earnings were not enough for our basic needs,” she recalled.

An opportunity to travel to Dubai presented itself. With the recommendation of a former client, she found someone to sponsor her first visit to the emirate. “I borrowed a huge amount of money from my friends and relatives to finance my visa and ticket to Dubai,” she said. She hoped that opportunities in Dubai would help her recover her losses.

Days of hell

However, the plan crumbled the minute she arrived at the Dubai airport. Her sponsor didn’t show up at all and she did not know anyone in the city. Overnight, the farm girl from La Union province in the Philippines had to get accustomed to the fast-paced city life of Dubai.

“I needed to survive on my own. I lived in a room that I shared with ten other people. The bed space cost me Dh300 per month,” she said, adding that she wasted no time and was already job-hunting on her first day in Dubai.

“I applied for almost all types of jobs, and submitted my application in almost all offices I could find. This went on for two months but I wasn’t lucky enough to even get called for a job interview,” she said.

“I consistently and constantly applied online, walk-ins, job fairs, etcetera but unfortunately it was all in vain,” she said. Her visa had expired and she needed to exit to the nearby Kish Island.

What was supposed to be a quick visa-run turned out to be 36 days of hell for Vagelyn. Most people she met on the small island were—like her—cash strapped and desperately trying to survive.

“I begged for food, washed dishes in different restaurants and did laundry for roommates in exchange for a meal,” she said. Sometimes, when the job was given to someone else, it meant that Vagelyn would go hungry for the day.

The biggest blow came when she arrived in her room to find that her closest friend had committed suicide. “She hanged herself because she could no longer take all the pain and long suffering in Kish,” she said.

Vagelyn went on to do 12 more visa runs in Kish, with still no job prospects in sight. “It was not a bed of roses at all as everyone perceive,” she said.

Tide turns for Vagelyn

Finally, lady luck smiled at Vagelyn and she was hired as a secretary for a four-star hotel in the UAE where she worked her way up as HR manager before becoming the youngest General Manager at the age of 28.

The resilient and hardworking Filipina commanded respect from peers but raised a few eyebrows. She coolly handled her detractors, including one European staff member who refused to cooperate with what he called a “Philippine monkey”. “If you can’t work for me, then you have no place here,” she replied to his racist attack. He eventually got fired.

A “full transformation” had happened. Vagelyn was no longer the shy farm girl, but the head honcho that everyone admired. On her steady climb to the top, Vagelyn never forgot to spare time for people who sought her help. It was mostly jobseekers who gravitated towards her. “I told them, ‘I’m not going to give you money but I’m going to help you find a job,’” she said.

Thankfully, because of the connections she had built over the years, it was easy to refer someone to another headhunter. Sometimes, all it took was an email from her to get someone accepted in a job. How does she make sure she hires or recommends the right people? “To me the most important thing is attitude. A skill can be acquired but having the right attitude is inborn,” she said. “I became a hotelier even though I knew nothing about the hotel industry, but I was given the chance and I didn’t waste it. I’d like to give the same opportunity to others,” she said.

Eventually, Vagelyn had to follow her heart on the advocacy that had endeared her to so many people. “As general manager, I had to prioritize business over everything else”. So when an offer for a human resources director opened up in Dubai, she grabbed it.

“My passion is to be with people, that is why I love my job as Human Resources Director,” she said. It’s not as easy as it looks, she discloses. “I deal with almost 32 nationalities in the organization and have to maintain a high level of engagement and satisfaction among team members,” she said.

“I love my profession because it allows me to help people and reach out to those who are in need,” she said. On her free time, Vagelyn does volunteer work to help Filipinos in the UAE get jobs.

From begging for jobs to helping others find jobs, the changes have certainly been big in Vagelyn’s life. What else has changed?

“There might be some changes in my appearance and my professional outlook but my heart and personality remain the same… As humble as it was when I left my beloved country and when I had nothing,” she said.

Here are a few more excerpts from her interview with

What do you think of challenges in life?

Events don’t shape your life. It’s your interpretation of these events that shapes your life. One of the challenges I faced previously was being humiliated and ridiculed many times that I even got to the point of giving up but I didn’t. Our beliefs and certainties have the power to expand or destroy our true potential.

How should one cope with challenges?

For you to overcome these, be ready to do things outside of your comfort zone. Find opportunities to learn, take the challenges to lead, be brave to live on the edge as these are the only way to grow. For you to excel and shine, strive to always give more than what is asked. Master the art of exceeding expectations, no matter how small or how big the expectation is.

What have you learned from your experiences?

I have to remind myself many times that events do not shape my life. My first few months—even years—in the UAE were wrought with challenges and difficulties that almost drew to the point of giving up. But ever the positive thinker, I forged onwards, and eventually, I realized that even negative experiences can have a positive impact on my life.

How does one stay positive in life?

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care so it is very important that we need to share our talent and skills to help and reach out to people who need our help. You don’t really need to be rich to help. As long as you have the passion igniting in your heart to reach out in your own little way, it can make a big difference to the lives of many people.

You are active in the Filipino community. Tell us more about what you do.

When I was the president of the Filipino HR association in the UAE I organised initiatives and programs to create and provide jobs to our countrymen. I also initiated activities and campaigns to generate funds for medical operations for children whose parents can’t afford them. I also provided free trainings and seminars about UAE labour and employment laws as well as career development trainings. I also organized events and concerts to raise funds for distressed Filipinos in the UAE.

What do you think Filipinos in the UAE need to stand out?

Filipinos need to go out of their comfort zone. Sheikh Maktoum once said “It’s a risk not to take a risk”. We should explore and see beyond our horizon. We have so much we can do and the future is so much bright ahead of us. We have to always raise the bar and continuously grow and develop ourselves. Learn and invest in education and training to be better that what we were yesterday. I didn’t take any course related to my job or the hotel industry but I continuously sharpened my talent and skills by attending trainings to equip me better in my career. Unleash and discover yourself! Level up and do something that will make you more fruitful, productive and beneficial to others in the community.

Also read:

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What have you done that you think makes you deserving to be called an Expat Leader?

I have been given 11 recognitions, including HR of the Year and I was in the list of 100 Most Influential Filipinos in the Gulf. The awards were given by various institutions for my achievements in the field of Human Resources and Hospitality Management; for my “sincere involvement in promoting the good image of expats in Middle East; steadfast commitment to the welfare of my fellow beings as demonstrated through community outreach and humanitarian efforts; and, for being an inspiration to Filipinos as an icon of professional competence and exceptionally outstanding leadership”.

What is your motto in life?

Don’t give up when things are hard, but work harder when you think of giving up. The way I started was not easy but I remained steadfast and kept on moving and dreaming. Have a career that you are passionate about, enjoy and make the most of it. Start with big clear goals in mind and believe that you can do it. How? You just do it. We don’t need to be great to start but we have to start to be great. Once you are on top always keep your feet on the ground and humble as you never know when you go down to the ladder you will meet the same people again.

Best lesson you’ve learned.

Be thankful of everything that happened in your life. Good experience gives you good memories, bad experience gives you best lessons in life.

What is your message to other expats in the UAE?

What makes people successful is attitude. If you believe you’ll succeed you will and if you think you’ll fail you will. You need to be confident, honest and driven. Our attitude can improve our skills so we need to change our attitude and become more focused and driven. Set goals, concentrate on knowing what you want to achieve and work towards achieving your goals. Your beliefs can hinder you or help you, but they can only help you if you understand that they are only beliefs. Remember that you don’t have to be 100 percent successful in everything you do to be successful. Every step you take to achieve your goal is a success. And if something goes wrong, just chalk it up to experience and learn from it.


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