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From asylum seeker to top-flight referee

Members National Association

Forced to leave Iraq as an asylum seeker, Twana Khalid Ahmed and his family eventually settled in Iceland, leading him on a journey to become a football referee in Iceland’s top division.

Twana Khaled, an Iraqi referee now based in Iceland,
Twana Khaled, an Iraqi referee now based in Iceland,

As a boy, Twana Khalid Ahmed loved nothing more than playing football. At school and on the streets of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, he would stay out every day playing with his friends until sunset.

At 15 years old, Twana suffered a broken leg, which would change the course of his footballing career. After a year in recovery, he was eventually able to return to light training, but in those 12 months, his interest had been captured by another part of the game. Twana took his first referees’ course at the age of 16 and 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 budding 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, the only concern was to find a safe home for his family. 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."

Twana Khaled before a match
Twana Khaled before a match

A short while after setting up home in Iceland, Twana’s family was visited by a local doctor. When talking with the doctor, he mentioned the family’s background, including his own passion for football. By chance, the doctor’s husband was a referee, too, and that was the gateway through which Twana could reconnect with football in his new home.

He had to be patient, though. As an asylum seeker, the family were not legally eligible to work until fully settled in the country.

"When I arrived, I didn’t have any social security number or bank account, however I spoke to the Icelandic Football Association (KSI) and I said, 'I can referee for free, because I love the game!' but they refused because it would have been illegal," Twana explained. "They said to come back as soon as I got a social security number."

"Iceland is a very good country. It has very friendly people, very kind people. We feel safe here. We made friends very quickly."

Iceland top division referee, Twana Khalid Ahmed

Football has no borders

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 refereeing. He began with third and fourth 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."

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 being allocated 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.

"I wish I had arrived in Iceland and started refereeing again five years earlier. Maybe then, I would have had a good chance to referee internationally. But for now, I will continue to try for it. I like to say: ‘Always have a dream, and always try for it’."

Iceland top division referee, Twana Khalid Ahmed

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. 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.

Twana Khaled
Twana Khaled

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. I like to say: 'Always have a dream, and always try for it'."

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.