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The spirit of giving percolated early in life

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

In 1979, radicals overthrew the Iranian and Nicaraguan regimes, forever complicating the lives of Maria Cisne Farahani and Manouchehr "Manny" Farahani.

"Neither of us took sides," Maria Farahani says. "We both put family first."

The couple, who grew up 8,000 miles apart, eventually reinvented themselves in Austin, where they had met while attending the University of Texas. They started businesses, raised a family and, as they grew more successful, turned to volunteer work and activism.

Today, the Fara Foundation — the name is formed from the first four letters of their surname — supports health, education and other projects in her native Nicaragua. Sales of Fara Coffee grown on their Central American farms — and available all over Austin — help finance that charity.

Tranquilly composed in a black and gray suit, complemented by a single strand of large river pearls, Maria Farahani, 55, smiles, even as she describes the air raids, shortages and rations from their time in Tehran during the rarely remembered (in this country) and incredibly deadly Iran-Iraq War that followed the Iranian Revolution during the 1980s.

"Nobody talks about it these days," she says. "When you live through such a crisis, you forge strong ties."

A middle child among seven siblings growing up in Matagalpa, a small city in northern Nicaragua, Maria Farahani attended an all-girls Catholic school. Her late father was a prominent coffee farmer and cattleman. Her mother, who still lives in Matagalpa, descended from German immigrants, who arrived to plant coffee in the 1880s.

Early on, she gravitated toward good works.

"During my senior year, we formed a group of socially responsible kids," she remembers. "We were working with a slum that had built up around a hospital garbage area. We got land from the city for these people. That was my first experience with this sort of thing. It was tough. I lived a life of privilege. It was hard to sleep at night knowing that people lived like that."

Her father had visited Austin as a member of an inter-American cattle breeders group, so UT popped up on her educational horizon.

"I didn't want to go anywhere cold. I grew up in tropics," she says. "Also, I'm from the generation who made the Nicaraguan Revolution, and I knew those things had begun at the universities there. There were strikes. I wanted to study somewhere where I could actually study."

Not that she stayed unaware of the social inequities that fueled the Sandinistas.

"A lot of my friends turned into guerrilla fighters," she says. "I couldn't devastate my family that way."

At UT, she forged into the university's sterling Latin American Studies program. Her future husband from Tehran studied civil engineering.

"I liked him a lot from the first day," she says. They started dating in 1978, right before he went back to Iran. "I thought: ‘What a wonderful man, but he's not for you.' He was moving back to a different part of the world."

She visited him shortly after the Iranian Revolution. Meanwhile, her family coalesced in Houston after their land was confiscated by the Sandinistas. She married Farahani and moved to Iran four days before the Iran-Iraq War started. She found the Iranian people friendly and hospitable, but there were other lives to consider.

"‘If I have I child,' I thought, ‘I'm going to Houston where my family lives," she says. As missiles fell near Tehran, they left. The Farahanis moved to Austin for good in 1986; they have two grown children.

The late 1980s were a low point, economically, for Austin. Manny Farahani responded by turning around properties — apartment complexes, dormitories, office buildings. Maria Farahani ran a private West Campus dorm.

"It was great fun," she says. "Being with young people. It kept me young."

She also organized Spanish language classes at Casis Elementary and became the liaison for international students at St. Stephen's Episcopal School.

In the early 1990s, her father became terminally ill and returned to Nicaragua. The couple traveled to see her parents. Typically, Manny said: "I want to buy real estate."

"It was a way to connect our children to their past," she says. "So we bought a small coffee farm."

The family fell in love with the mountain rainforests and the jasmine-like coffee trees that must be picked by hand. It helped that the price of coffee rose from 42 cents when they purchased their first farm to about $2.50 these days (it peaked at $3 last year).

"Manny keeps up with it every day," she says. "He likes to say ‘I married coffee.' We became serious farmers. But we realized we were there for a reason. We had been very fortunate in Austin. And when you are in Nicaragua, the needs are so incredible, you want to do something. You feel like you have to make a difference."

The Farahanis started with a small food program for single moms and older couples. Then they got involved in an old folks home run by four nuns. ($200 supports an elderly person for a month.) They funded a scholarship program, then a whole school.

They opened the Fara Clinic and teamed with doctors working on preventing cervical cancer. They continue to ferry resources and medical expertise from the United States to the neediest in northern Nicaragua. And they do so in person, on the ground, not just by directing things from Austin.

Maria Farahani: "We feel like being there, it opens up more doors."

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