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7000km Offside: Iraqi Asylum Seeker Referees Icelandic Football Matches

7000km Offside: Iraqi Asylum Seeker Referees Icelandic Football Matches

Greig Robertson
Photos by
Timothée Lambrecq

Published January 9, 2018

Twana Khaled, a 28-year-old former Iraqi Premier League referee, is now stewarding matches in Iceland while his appeal to a rejected asylum application is being processed. After discussing his career history and aspirations with family doctor, Tekla Petursdóttir, who also liaises with social services, Twana was put in touch with Gunnar Jarl Jónsson, a retired Icelandic referee, who has since arranged matches for the asylum seeker to officiate. Now training with KSÍ referees, Twana’s ambition is to return to top-level football in Iceland, on a permanent basis.

Worth the cold

Hailing from Erbil, the largest city in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, Twana spent 18 months in a German refugee camp from January 2016 – March 2017, but encountered difficulties in applying for asylum there and eventually wound up in Iceland via Denmark in June. Now, after being here for six months, Twana hopes he can settle down with his family. “Iceland is one of the best countries for women and children,” he says. Though a world away from Iraq, where summer temperatures can reach higher than 40°C, it is the prospect of good social provisions that make the cold worthwhile.

““When I was in Iraq, there were 37 million people and I refereed in the top league, so here I can do the same.”

In terms of football, Twana remains proud of his roots and supports hometown club Erbil SC, who were runners-up in the Asian equivalent of the Europa League in 2012 and 2014. “Some years ago, Iraqi football was not so good, but now they can buy good players from Africa, Europe and Brazil. They have so many Brazilian players,” Twana chuckles. Although this might indicate the Iraqi league’s superiority to Úrvalsdeild karla, Iceland’s top division, he also recognises the prowess of strákarnir okkar. “I think Iceland is the better national team,” Twana happily concedes.

Whistle and card

Since Twana cannot yet receive a work permit, he is currently refereeing on a voluntary basis, but has high hopes for the future. “When I was in Iraq, there were 37 million people and I refereed in the top league, so here I can do the same,” he says confidently. This kind of resolve and determination will surely be key for his family, given that they are surviving on 10,000 ISK per-week and 5,000 ISK per child.

With several games already under his belt, including one between the U-20 squads of Reykjavík based teams Fjölnir and KR, Twana has sharpened up his fitness, but feels like he’s some way off from competing with his Icelandic counterparts. “I haven’t trained for eight months,” he admits, shaking his head. On the positive side, since Twana is in the preliminary stages of learning Icelandic, he cannot yet understand the backchat of players and has to let his whistle and card do the talking.

Doing what he loves is clearly important to Twana and the recommendations he has received can only help his case. He has already felt the warmth of the Icelandic community since his arrival and hopes for similarly empathetic treatment from the State. “I want to say thanks to Gunnar, Tekla and Magnús Jóns, the head of refereeing in Iceland,” he adds, gratefully.


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