Refugees in natural products: Sassy Organics founder Aida RejzovicRefugees in natural products: Sassy Organics founder Aida Rejzovic
After fleeing Bosnia-Herzegovina, this Australian entrepreneur started a natural products retail business to address her health conditions and help others.
June 17, 2023
In recognition of the United Nation's Refugee Week, June 19-25, New Hope Network presents the story of Sassy Organics founder Aida Rejzovic, who fled Bosnia-Herzegovina when she was 12 years old.
It's still painful for Sassy Organics founder Aida Rejzovic to talk about being a refugee and her journey from Eastern Europe to Melbourne, Australia.
She was 12 years old when war broke out in the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina. For safety, Rejzovic's uncle suggested she leave her home city of Brčko along with her mother and sister. They only planned to be gone for a night, packing "a simple bag" that included a pair of pajamas and not much else.
Her mother had just made lunch. "But we just left everything on the table," she says. Rejzovic also left behind her dog, Linda, who'd just had puppies. She thought leaving was just a temporary precaution and they would come back the next day.
But that never happened.
"As we were leaving the city, they had barricades and armies stopping us," Rejzovic says about April 30, 1992. "From that moment, our lives changed dramatically."
The trio traveled northwest to Zagreb, Croatia. Normally, it was a four-hour trip. "But it took us four days to get out because we had to stop between the shootings," Rejzovic says. "We were in the back of a truck; there were like 30 of us. It was truly horrific conditions to leave."
Finding food and a safe place to sleep also proved difficult. As a 12-year-old she cleaned hotel rooms and homes, and worked in restaurant kitchens, telling people she was much older so she could work.
"People abuse situations and take advantage of the fact that you're a refugee and have to work for food and shelter," she says. "You don't speak the language. You don't know where to go. You just do what you're told."For the next few years, Rejzovic, her mother and her sister moved from place to place, sometimes only staying only a night or two. They slept in other people's homes, apartments or hotel rooms, even walking down the freeway one night to escape an abusive situation.
Eventually, they gained refugee status after being in Germany, the Czech Republic and Croatia.
"We went from one refugee camp to another, whichever country would take us," she says. "We were just happy to have shelter, a roof over our heads and to make sure that it's safe. You get three meals a day but that's about it. You don't get any other financial support."
Her clothes, like a jacket she desperately needed, came from the Red Cross. "But whether it's the right size or color is irrelevant," she says. "You literally grow up overnight."
The power of deodorant
One thing that helped Rejzovic during her time as a refugee was looking at magazines. "We had no pocket money, but if you did get a hold of a magazine, it was like, 'Oh, my God, this deodorant,'" she says about the advertisements. "All I ever dreamed about was, 'One day, I'm going to have this.'"
To make extra cash, Rejzovic collected plastic pigeon bands. "You get like a hundred of those rings and you'd put them in ordered number," she says. "It was a tedious process, and you might get 10 cents for each one of those, but you could do it for eight hours and make $5 a day."
She still remembers finally being able to purchase her first Rexona deodorant. "I was super happy I could actually have my own deodorant," she says. "Little did I know 30 years ago, I would one day make it to Australia and have the opportunity to have everything that I'd ever dreamed."
Rejzovic was 16 by the time she and her family made it to Melbourne, Australia. "Finally arriving in Australia was such a blessing," she says. "To actually go to school and make friends who would stay and not have to leave to go somewhere else or another refugee camp."
But the transition took a while, especially learning a new language.
"It's been tough, but I always think it could have been worse," Rejzovic says. "What if we had stayed or gotten captured like some of our family members that ended up in horrible camps and have been through horrible stuff?My mom's always been grateful that we escaped, even though we had five years of really harsh living conditions."
Using natural products to cure ailments
Despite her difficult journey, Rejzovic says she's always been interested in healthy living and putting on her "tracksuit" as an 11-year-old—like "something you'd see in a Marvel movie"—to go for a run.
"I've always had an interest in healthy living and healthy food,being as natural as possible," she says.
Nearly a decade ago, after marrying her husband, Rejzovic felt unwell while on her honeymoon. She'd had a lot of issues around hormone imbalance, including cysts and endometriosis. Every time she exercised, she was in pain and had to stop.
"I had surgery here and there and had tried just about everything," Rejzovic says. "But a lot of doctors just treat the symptoms not the cause. Nothing really worked."
For years she'd been reading how pesticides and chemicals can interfere with hormones. When they got back from their honeymoon, she told her husband she would get rid of everything and start from scratch.
"And we did," she says. First they switched to organic produce. Then she replaced all of her makeup, skincare, perfumes and polishes.
"Eventually I got rid of everything," she says. "And a year later I felt really good, and all my issues had disappeared."
Growing a business in Australia
That's when Rejzovic realized she wanted to start a natural products business.
"My biggest advice is 'follow your heart,'" she says. "And don't wait for the perfect moment." she says. Too many people delay starting a business, telling themselves they'll "do it next year" when they think they'll be in a better financial position. "Make a decision and start looking for ways to get there. Because once you've got that in your mind, you'll find a way to make it work to make it happen."
In 2016, Rejzovic launched Sassy Organics, a health-and-wellness online store focused on organic, vegan and cruelty-free natural products, with nine brands and 124 SKUs.
"We started the business with five grand on the credit card, my first order ever from our supplier," she says. "And we just kept pouring in money."
Now, Sassy Organics offers over 2,000 SKUs, including more than 100 food brands. "And we're still growing," she says. "Every week, we try to add a new brand or a new product from the existing brands with a weekly promotion.
"I get daily emails from brands wanting us to stock their products, but you can only do so much. Having to say no is really hard."
She focuses on smaller categories, as well as those with big demand but limited selection. Then, through what Rejzovic calls a "really strict process," she'll check a product's ingredients list and a company's sustainability policy to make sure everything is vegan and cruelty free. She'll also ensure that the brand doesn't have a sister company selling somewhere else, where animal testing is mandatory.
"If something doesn't feel right, I won't stock them," she says.
Fittingly, one of her top sellers is deodorant, led by Noosa Basics aluminum-free, organic deodorant in the Coconut and Vanilla scent.
"I have to laugh," Rejzovic says. "Because now I've got enough deodorant to last me a lifetime."
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