Canadian Olympic speedskater Cindy Klassen was in the West Bank on Sunday to open an indoor sports and fitness facility for Palestinian women.
The Winnipeg native and six-time Olympic medallist was in Bethlehem for the grand opening of the Dar Al Kalima Sports Hall, the largest indoor sports facility in the West Bank.
Klassen is visiting the West Bank and Israel with Canadian Lutheran World Relief, which provided financial support for construction of the sports hall. The Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church in Calgary also provided funding.
The $1.2-million US indoor gym will host a women's sports program — the first of its kind in the region — and serve Palestinian girls and women.
Klassen told CBC News it has been fun to talk to the young women who will use the sports complex.
"They think it's neat to meet someone who's been at the Olympics before because they know about the Olympics — maybe not so much about speed skating, but they're learning," she said Sunday.
The official opening of the Dar Al Kalima Sports Hall included a symposium on empowering women through sports and a women's soccer match.
The 1,300-square-metre sports hall will house the Diyar Women’s Sports Center, which was created in 2008 but hasn't had a dedicated space until now.
It will also offer space to soccer, basketball and volleyball teams as well as tennis players.
Women's participation in sports is still relatively unusual in Palestinian society, which encourages gender separation in much of public life. Several women's soccer teams have formed, but they lack training facilities.
Klassen said she hopes the new sports centre will enable Palestinian women to train and build confidence.
"I just pray that I'll be able to impact them a little bit and give them a little bit of hope," she said.
"That's what it's all about here, is just giving them hope that things can change and that the next generation, things will be different for them."
Klassen heads to Jordan later this week to work with Syrian refugees there.