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Refereeing skills open gateway for Iraqi asylum seeker to build new life in Iceland

Iraqi referee Twana Khalid Ahmed’s extraordinary journey from his birthplace in Erbil to a new home in Reykjavik offers living proof of how football unites communities and inspires individuals.

Twana Khalid Ahmed, an Iraqi referee now based in Iceland
Twana Khalid Ahmed, an Iraqi referee now based in Iceland

Forced to leave his home country of Iraq as an asylum seeker, Twana Khalid Ahmed and his family were relieved to settle into a new life in Iceland, but it took a chance meeting with the local doctor to discover a new home for his professional calling.

Talking to the doctor, Twana realised that the doctor's husband was a leading Icelandic referee – a role that Twana himself had performed at the highest level in Iraq. He immediately offered his services free of charge to the Icelandic Football Association (KSI).

"Always have a dream, and always try for it."

Twana Khalid Ahmed

The KSI recognised the expertise that Twana would bring to the national game, as well as the opportunity to support his integration into Icelandic society. But first Twania needed a social security number to be eligible to work.

“It’s important to recognise the expertise that asylum seekers like Twana bring to our communities,” says Ómar Smárason, Head of Communications at the KSI. “We told him to come back and see us as soon as he received his social security number.”

By his own admission, he was not in great physical shape, but Twana had a belief in his own abilities to reach the top in Iceland. Or as he puts it, “I like to say: ‘Always have a dream, and always try for it’.”

Straight back to football

After two years, his family had received all the legal paperwork required for them to live and work in Iceland, and Twana went straight back to football.

He started with fourth and third division matches, before requesting an observer from the KSI to assess his performances. “The KSI were very good with me,” he says. “They gave me some games and I knew that I had some ability, so I asked for an observer to see how I referee. They sent me observers for three matches.”

EURO 2024: Game changer, story maker

KSI referee training programmes, including language lessons, helped accelerate Twana’s rapid rise to the top of Icelandic refereeing. Courses are funded by UEFA’s HatTrick programme, which distributes an average 66% of each EURO’s net revenue to European associations for investment in their national game.

Read more stories that show the EURO’s power to change lives and communities for the better, on an off the pitch.

So impressive were his refereeing displays that within two years Twana was on the periphery of taking charge at the summit of Icelandic football. By the start of the 2022 season, he was chosen for fourth official duties in the top division.

During the second game of his top-flight experience in Iceland, the referee was injured after 70 minutes and could not continue. Twana took the opportunity with both hands and officiated the rest of the match, before receiving four games as the main referee for the rest of the season.

Now, with the new Icelandic season underway, he is part of the crop of referees available to work at the top level in the country.

Twana Khalid Ahmed leads out his fellow officials before an Icelandic top divison match
Twana Khalid Ahmed leads out his fellow officials before an Icelandic top divison match

Personal adversity

It was not the first time that Twana had to work his way from the bottom of the football pyramid after overcoming personal adversity.

Growing up in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Twana loved nothing more than playing football. At school and on the streets, he would stay out every day playing with his friends until sunset. But, at the age of 15, a broken leg would change the course of Twana’s career.

After a year in recovery, he was eventually able to return to light football training, but in those 12 months, his interest had been captured by another part of the game.

Twana considered refereeing during his time at home and decided to take his first referees’ course at the age of 16. Twana rose through the ranks rapidly, graduating from that first course to refereeing top division matches in Iraq in just seven years.

A change of circumstances

Twana continued his successful refereeing career in Iraq until 2015, when he and his family were forced to flee the country as asylum seekers. Arriving in Germany in January 2016, Twana’s only concern with his family was to find a safe home. After having asylum applications rejected in several countries, the family eventually made their way to Iceland via Denmark.

“Iceland is a very good country,” Twana says now. “It has very friendly people, very kind people. We feel safe here. We made friends very quickly and they taught us what Icelandic culture is, what’s the style and how everything works.”

Support from the KSI

Twana is quick to acknowledge all the support he’s received in Iceland since arriving, not only from the locals who have made him and his family feel at home, but from the KSI who have pushed and encouraged him to make the most of his skills.

In addition to providing observers for the early matches he oversaw in Iceland, the country’s Football Association also run English-language specific training and courses, funded by UEFA’s HatTrick programme, in addition to the pre-existing Icelandic-language courses.

Twana Khalid Ahmed in action in Iceland
Twana Khalid Ahmed in action in Iceland

This extra language availability allows other non-nationals to participate in officiating football matches in the country, with a number of Polish referees also overseeing games in Iceland. One of these initiatives saw former Northern Ireland referee Alan Snoddy visit the country to deliver a two-day course.

The referees also undergo physical training as a team before and during the season, which helps as part of the integration process for any new referees. Twana is now well settled in his new home and says that he wants to continue to grow as a referee in Iceland.

“I wish I had arrived in Iceland and started refereeing again five years earlier,” he says. “Maybe then, I would have had a good chance to referee internationally. But for now, I will continue to try for it.”

Be a Referee!

UEFA’s "Be a Referee!" campaign aims to increase knowledge about refereeing, highlight the importance of referees for the game and inspire young people start a career as a match official. The campaign is part of a wider programme through which UEFA will support national associations in their recruitment activities, aiming to recruit around 40,000 new referees per season.