Photo by Emily Broad

Studio XY: Stories of Belonging and Strength

At Studio XY, the nine Filipino women who work as hair-stylists and nail technicians are bound by more than their daily occupation. Behind the studio’s tinted doors, their cheerful banter and welcoming smiles hide complicated human stories.

Sep 28, 2019

Facing the road at the periphery of NYU Abu Dhabi’s campus, Studio XY – a small beauty salon that opened in 2015 – has been part of the university since its move from Sama Tower to Saadiyat Island.
At Studio XY, the nine Filipino women who work as hairstylists and nail technicians are bound by more than their daily occupation. Behind the studio’s tinted doors, their cheerful banter and welcoming smiles hide complicated human stories.
Virgi, the studio’s receptionist, smiles warmly as she describes the complex journey that ultimately led her to Saadiyat Island. In the aftermath of family loss in 2010, Virgi decided to look for new opportunities and moved to Dubai, enamored by the idea of a growing, cosmopolitan city. Little did she know that what promised to be a well-paid caregiver position was in fact a househelp job – one with no off-days and significantly less pay. By the time she arrived in Sharjah and was picked up from the airport, it was too late to go back. After months of solitude and almost no contact with her family in Cebu, her sister found her.
Photo by Emily Broad
Her story is not dissimilar from those of other workers coming to the UAE, a generous country, but not one without its challenges. In spite of it all, Virgi carries herself with optimism and warmth. After seven years of a difficult journey in the UAE, she shares every day with a cohort of women hailing from the Philippines, whom she calls her family and who grapple together with the distance from their loved ones.
Angie, one of the studio's stylists, recalls how it all started. “The first year was difficult,” she says. “We were giving out the flyers on Saadiyat so that the people living in the residences could know we have a salon here on campus.”
From the days of giving out flyers and hoping for clients, to forming strong ties with the NYUAD community, Studio XY has come a long way. “It was like up and down. But we really survived,” added Virgi, smiling.
The people at Studio XY describe 2018 as some of the most difficult times. Amid financial hardship faculty and community members joined forces to help them get through the week. Using vouchers provided by the university, Virgi, Angie and others were able to eat free of cost at our East Dining Hall while their grievances were resolved.
“Upfront, we don’t really know who helped us, and we really are thankful for them,” reflected Virgi. “We’re very, very lucky that we are in this community.”
Photo by Emily Broad
Despite hardship, laughter often fills the studio as they straighten their hair and paint each others’ nails during the salon’s more empty hours.
For the women of Studio XY, the salon is more than just a workplace and their relationships seldom stay within those walls. Outside work and into the realm of personal life, they live within walking distance of each other and spend their free time eating out, sleeping or engaging with the larger Filipino community.
“We have our differences,” Virgi admits. “Sometimes we fight and everything, but at the end of the day we are here every day, 24/7 minus one day. It's like, we just hold on to each other like family. Like siblings but [with] different mothers.”
Photo by Emily Broad
Apart from their friendship, the women of Studio XY express affection for students and faculty in the NYUAD community. For Virgi, talking to and learning from students is one of the most rewarding aspects of NYUAD. Many of their loyal customers are students, staff, faculty and family members, and it is this reciprocal relationship that makes Studio XY an integral part of our community.
In the same way we look to the women of Studio XY as symbols of strength, they find inspiration within the student body, particularly those with connections to the Philippines.
Virgi and Angie recalled Julia Saubier, Class of 2017, “Her way of introducing herself and making her way out of her comfort zone is just the same as we came out from our comfort zone in the Philippines, so basically, we’ve learned from her to stay positive.”
Karma Dolma Gurung, Class of 2018, Maya Morsli and Vuk Vuković, both Class of 2019, Film & New Media professor, Amos Katz, and Liria Gjidija, associate director of Social Responsibility and Community Engagement, are just among a few community members that they expressed deep affection for.
Photo by Emily Broad
For Virgi, Angie, Mariz and others, most of the days are spent dreaming – of a Green Card filed eight years ago, a life in Canada, going back to school and finishing what they once started.
“To get a certificate from NYU,” says Virgi, hopeful, when asked about what her aspirations for the future were.
Studio XY has become a fixture of the NYUAD culture, a constant in the campus landscape. Within the walls of a salon that we pass by every day lie complex stories of belonging, migration, female resilience and strength.
Studio XY’s landline has been broken for a couple months now. For information about their products, services or opening hours, feel free to walk in or text +971 055-237-1319.
Emily Broad is Photography Editor and Laura Assanmal is Senior Features Editor. Email them at
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