8 Jun 2020

From Russia with love

From Here Now, 7:00 am on 8 June 2020

Melana Khabazi’s passion for dance has seen her travel the world and helped her find her place in it – Aotearoa.

“I think dance is amazing and an outstanding way of expressing yourself. The plan wasn’t to go and stay here, the plan was to study, and go back to Russia, but obviously that didn’t happen.”

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Photo: Supplied

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Melana and Marika Khabazi as children in Russia

Melana and Marika Khabazi as children in Russia Photo: Supplied

Ten years ago, Melana Khabazi and her sister Marika moved here as teenagers to study. Melana was just 16-years-old.

The youngest of three girls, Melana was born in Georgia in 1993, two years after the country broke away from the Soviet Union.

“Our parents never told us much about what happened but from what I know it was a tough time. It’s almost an unspoken something that we didn’t really talk about,” says 26-year-old Melana.

Her mother is a lawyer, and her father used to be a dancer and a choreographer in Georgian National Dance.

“Georgian dance is quite powerful and strong, basically a folk dance that is quite famous and popular,” she says.

Compulsory military service saw her father Guram move from Georgia to Ulan-Ude, a city in Russia’s Siberia, and where he met Melana’s mother, Olga.

“My mum left everything and she moved to another country with my father which is quite amazing because obviously it’s a whole different culture, different people, different language. She was on her own. She has to adjust and live there, but I know that it was quite tough times,” she adds.

But in 1995, when Melana was two-years-old the family returned to her mother’s home in Ulan-Ude, in Eastern Siberia. It’s where the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal is.

“Ulan-Ude is part of Siberia. If you want to do the Trans-Siberian railway, you will go through my town,” says Melana.

Melana Khabazi

Photo: Supplied

It was a melting pot of nationalities in Ulan-Ude, and Melana was no stranger to being around people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities.

“Growing up it was a norm for me – so many different people, so many different cultures..' it was interesting and I accepted it all,” says Melana.

The joy she got from expressing herself through music and movement began when she started school.

“Me and my sister we went to a gymnasium, which is not a normal school, it’s basically like an arts school, so you learn dance, you learn music and you learn theatre,” she adds.

“That’s when I fell in love with this art form. That’s what made me realise that I wanted to learn dance professionally”.

Melana's older sister Marika was 17-years old when she applied for a scholarship to study film and television in New Zealand and Melana, at 16, applied to study dance at Unitec in Auckland.

“I was the only Russian, the only international in my course as well. I felt very, very left out and if I didn’t have my sister Marika, I would probably just go back to Russia,” she adds.

“On top of that I also didn’t know English, so I had to learn the language as well and it was just very challenging. But I’m so grateful, and I’m so happy that I made that decision to stay.”

Melana’s affinity with Polynesian dance helped her bridge the cultural divide and made her feel at home.

“I remember watching poi dance, when I was first here, I was just fascinated. The whole Polynesian culture just definitely is a big part of me falling in love with this country because I find Polynesian culture very close to Russia and to Georgia.”

Her post-graduate work drew on her personal experience with settling down in a foreign country.

“My project was on cultural differences and how your body reacts physically, how it makes you feel to be in an unknown environment and what emotions do you go through?

Melana Khabazi

Photo: Supplied

“It’s an interesting one, feeling like an outsider, it’s almost like it’s always with me because of always moving.

“But after living here for so long now, every time I go back to Russia now I feel like an outsider, which is weird”.

Melana works in television as a news editor and is waiting for her New Zealand permanent residency to come through, while her sister Marika is due to get her citizenship.

The two Khabazi sisters are forever grateful to their mother for allowing them as teenagers to journey half a world away to make Aotearoa their home.

“It’s a big thing to send your kids away, trying to follow their dreams that they’re not even sure about. But she always had trust in us, and especially if we are together, we are stronger and as a family, we can achieve things.

“We fell in love with New Zealand. We couldn’t see us going back to Russia.”