Our Women of Spirit, twins Hermon and Heroda Berhane, were born and spent their early childhood in Eritrea. They came to live in the UK after a brief period in the US, having mysteriously both lost their hearing aged seven (on the same day). Both note the barriers they faced when pursuing careers in fashion. This spurred them on to forge their own path. Starting their blog, Being Her, they spread awareness about ableism and accessibility alongside their enviable fashion sense. We talk to them about both the challenges and the amazing experiences they have had along the way.
Throughout 2021, we’re celebrating women who are working to make a real difference in the world: the leaders, the freethinkers and the voices for change that inspire us every day at Radley London. Get to know twins Hermon and Heroda Berhane behind the blog Being Her. The super stylish sisters, who also happen to be deaf, share their adventures in travel and style while advocating for accessibility and challenging attitudes to ableism.
Tell us about your early childhood in Eritrea.
Both: “We had a beautiful childhood in Eritrea and we were excited (like most children) to go to school. We had a big family always visiting our beautiful house, playing with our Labrador, Bobby. We had neighbours and a community that were part of our daily childhood. Everything was perfect.
“We both became deaf at the same time and it was obviously mysterious. We moved to the USA because we could not get a diagnosis or treatment in Eritrea or Ethiopia. We stayed in USA for one year and decided to move to the UK for a better education and because the deaf culture was stronger, such as deaf schools and British Sign Language.”
What do you miss about Eritrea and the culture you left behind?
Hermon: “Our childhood was perfect, we can still picture in our head the family get togethers, friends and the sense of community. The warmth of the people. These are the things we miss about Eritrea, those warm, fuzzy feelings in your heart that make us proud to be Eritrean. It is a beautiful culture.”
Both: “The food and the celebration, of course we miss that. We miss going to Massawa about four hours away from our hometown, the red sea island we went almost every weekend for the beach, swimming and fun. The warm weather, we miss that for sure.”
Are there sounds you remember from home, before you lost your hearing?
Heroda: “Yes, everyone is always surprised that we still have memories of sounds from home, before we lost our hearing. It’s incredible right? It was weird, remembering the sounds of home like our dog barking and chickens clucking. We can tell it’s different being deaf now than when we were hearing.”
Hermon: “I remember the sound of church bells. And we used to have chickens. I remember adult conversations, but sadly, we also remember the sounds of civil war in Eritrea. We remember gunshots and explosions too.”
Heroda: “I also remember our mother was talking to our neighbour by the gates when we saw gunfire in the sky like a shooting star, and we all ran inside to hide. When you are young it was a part of life, we were scared, but it’s only when you look back you realise how different life could have been.”
Please tell us about going deaf. When and how did it happen?
Hermon: “We became profoundly deaf at the age of 7, on the same day at the same time. Isn’t that strange?”
Heroda: “Yeah, we were playing together in the backyard at home and mum was trying to call our names and we did not hear at all. From that day on, that was it, we were deaf. I used to watch TV with my sister, Flintstone cartoons. But on that day, we couldn’t hear the sounds.”
How did you find a deaf community and what did this mean to you?
Both: “Brighton was where our world eventually opened up, through British Sign Language. We found our identity at boarding school there. It was like a dream, meeting deaf people, because at that time we thought we were only the deaf people in the world.
“Sign language is a beautiful form of expression using gestures, facial expression and the body to communicate your feelings. It fits with our natural creativity. The deaf community just became our family. Within the hearing world, it can be very lonely. As soon as we were in that deaf world, we fitted in – it was where we belonged!”
What challenges did you face at university and how did this inspire your fight for equality and awareness today?
Both: “When we started at the London College of Fashion after boarding school, we were suddenly thrown into the hearing world, we felt isolated. We were determined to get through the course, we really wanted to stick at it, so we focused on the work.
“Although we had note-takers and interpreters, there were lots of barriers. We felt like people often looked down at us because they didn’t have any awareness of what deafness meant, and that really affected our confidence. The barriers and doubters gave us the determination to succeed. We didn’t know how, but we knew that we would fulfil our dreams.”
Tell us about your blog, Being Her.
Both: “We started Being Her (we feel fortunate to work together) to make sure our voices had a platform. We wanted a way to help women who are black, diverse, and with deafness or a disability to gain confidence in themselves. We wanted to show a positive attitude and that anything is possible.
“We wanted to share with our audience the barriers we go through every day and educate people on what sign language means and give them a sense of deaf awareness through fashion and travel. Our platform helps us engage with our followers and we try to change negative stereotypes/ attitudes towards deafness and disability. It was also a way of truly embracing who we are. Whether that’s being deaf, being Eritrean, being women, being British. All these things make us who we are and embracing our limitations taught us how to challenge them constantly.”
How have you changed barriers into opportunities?
Both: “We had a lot of rejection in the fashion industry. They see us in a negative light because of our deafness. They don’t see our skills. We used rejection as an inspiration to motivate us to be better and do better. When we felt limited, that’s when we decided to push the boundaries because being black and deaf is a double struggle. What are you going to do if they reject you? Change your path, like we did.
“Society will always try and push the deaf community aside, and we have to show them that we are not going to disappear.”
What is ableism and why is it important that we all know more?
“Discrimination against deaf or hard of hearing is a type of ableism called audism. Most people have never heard of this before and never realise how sensitive deaf/hard of hearing people are.
“In this day and age when technology is capable of so many weird and wonderful things, how can we be campaigning for one the most old-fashioned forms of technology; captions. It’s shocking really and what makes it more annoying is how easy it is for people and companies to add captions to their content.
“They see disability as a dirty word and a negative word and we always felt excluded by this systemic ableism. It is exhausting and frustrating to remind people of their responsibility of ‘inclusion & accessibility’. There are 466 million people in the world that are deaf or hard of hearing.
“It’s so important to be aware, to always ask, to unlearn stereotypes, to use your privilege and be an ally, to respect the experiences of people with disabilities and to hire and promote them.”
Which Women of Spirit have inspired you most in your life?
Both: “Haben Girma. She is one of our friends and also a great role model for people with disabilities, as well as people without. She is living proof that if you are determined enough and if you try hard enough, you will be successful. She is the first deaf-blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School. Now, this amazing Eritrean-American woman is fighting for better access to education for other deaf-blind people around the world.
“When we’re complaining or thinking of an excuse about why we can’t do or accomplish something, we always think of Haben Girma because her story gives us the inspiration we need to push through.”
How would you define a Woman of Spirit?
Both: “Being a Woman of Spirit is being a role model. Lifting people’s spirit up. Knowing it’s okay to embrace your perceived faults and not being afraid of taking risks. Sharing experiences is important, women supporting women instead of trying to bring each other down.”
If you had to choose one quote or mantra to live by, what would it be?
Heroda: “Being deaf is not the problem; it’s the barriers we face every day that are the problem.”
Hermon: “Our challenges create a better version of us. Without the accomplishment of overcoming challenges and succeeding we wouldn’t be the people we are today.”
What brings you the most joy in your life?
Both: “Travelling around the world. Escaping to nature. And we love wearing colourful outfits that brighten people’s day. Also gratitude, seeing family and friends, and laughter. If you look for something amazing instead of digging for the negatives in life, you will always find something good that brings you joy.”