“Art is so damn powerful,” Syrian American artist and architect Mohamad Hafez told students Tuesday during a Gold Fund presentation on campus. “Don’t do art just for the sake of beauty. That’s valid, but art is more than that. Art has the ability to cross borders, to cross hearts, to demolish walls between us.”

Hafez, who was born in Damascus and raised in Saudi Arabia, came to the United States to study architecture, later becoming a successful corporate architect. Art was initially a hobby for him and a way to process his homesickness and nostalgia when he was unable to return home following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. Then, as he witnessed the Syrian civil war wreak havoc on his homeland and his own family—many of whom fled as refugees to other parts of the world—creating art took on a deeper and more urgent purpose.

Using found objects, careful architectural details, memories, and images of the Middle East, Hafez creates surreal, sculptural pieces with political and social messages—depicting the senseless violence of war, the baggage (physical and emotional) that refugees carry from home, and the widespread cultural losses occurring in Damascus, an ancient but advanced city critical to the history of several civilizations and world religions.

Watch this video of Mohamad Hafez’s presentation to students.