Cindy Klassen opens women's sports centre in West Bank

Canadian Olympic speedskater Cindy Klassen is in the West Bank today to open an indoor sports and fitness facility for Palestinian women and girls.

Dar Al Kalima Sports Hall hosts sports, fitness programs for Palestinian women and girls

Canadian speedskater Cindy Klassen talks to members from the Palestinian Dar al-Kalima women's soccer team prior to an inauguration ceremony of their women's indoor sports centre in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday. (Nasser Nasser/Associated Press)

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.

Klassen holds a medal of honour that was dedicated to her in recognition of her efforts supporting women, during the inauguration ceremony of a women's sports centre in Bethlehem on Sunday. (Nasser Nasser/Associated Press)
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.

With files from The Associated Press