A former Marine, Sarah Dionna has taken a behind-the-scenes role in Afghan evacuations | Photo by Rūta Smith

Charleston local Sarah Dionna has a small role in Lady of the Manor, now playing on Amazon Prime Video. The movie stars Melanie Lynskey, Justin Long, Judy Greer and Ryan Phillippe — Dionna was honored to be a part of it. “Filming Lady of the Manor was one of the best and most magical days of my life!” said Dionna in an August Instagram post about the movie. “I will forever be grateful to everyone on set that day!”

Dionna has been a fixture in the Charleston arts and film scenes for ages. She started submitting for film auditions in 2015. She’s written and directed her own projects, and starred in Michelle Iannantuono’s Psychoacoustics in 2018. Dionna started pole dancing in 2019, and has grown quite an online following as well as booked a collection of dancing gigs in recent years. But for the past few months, she’s put performing to the side to focus on important work as a member of Operation Snow Leopard.

Operation Snow Leopard is a group of private citizens who are working to evacuate as many people from Afghanistan as possible. The organization is focusing many of its efforts on removing groups vulnerable to the Taliban, particularly women leaders.

“Right after the fall of Kabul, I was heartbroken,” said Dionna, who served in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2006. She was accidentally exposed to chemicals and developed postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which kept her from deploying and led to her medical retirement from the Marines.

“I’ve been a part of Veterans in Media and Entertainment for the past year now. They started making posts on Instagram about wanting to do something to help evacuate people from Afghanistan and so that was something I really wanted to get involved with. I thought, before that, maybe I wasn’t able to do all the service that I had wanted to do. But this, I can give back in this way.”

Operation Snow Leopard works diligently to evacuate American citizens and legal residents, their extended families and Afghan allies and partners who have worked with U.S. forces. This includes special operations, interpreters and intelligence agents. The organization also provides food, shelter and medical supplies to people on the ground. Afghanistan’s former regime relied heavily on foreign aid, so the new Taliban-ruled regime is facing a crippling economic crisis. On top of that, women face increasing difficulties under Taliban rule, as they lose rights they previously held, including driving and attending public schools.

“I spend all my time either actively working on helping evacuate people in some capacity, writing about it or in meetings with people,” said Dionna. “I never know what my job will be when I wake up and I don’t ever know when the next time I will get to sleep is. I don’t even always know which state I will be in.”

On the day of Lady of the Manor’s release, Dionna was unable to head to the theaters, instead celebrating a flight out of Afghanistan she helped organize. “Filming Lady of the Manor was one of the best days of my life. Getting that flight out was one of the most meaningful days of my life.”

“In a situation where the politicians of the world decided to be quiet and leave us behind, here in the U.S., thousand of miles away from me, Sarah, an actor based in South Carolina, decided to join [Operation Snow Leopard] as a volunteer to help people like me and my family to live their lives without fear, in peace,” said Somayah Nouruzi, a writer and journalist who is among the many people that has been helped by Dionna’s efforts.

Dionna’s work is constantly evolving with Operation Snow Leopard. She’s taking her writing skills, honed in film and television projects, and helping to draft legislation to help process evacuees. She’s working directly with politicians as a liaison to help get new bills passed to make the work of Operation Snow Leopard easier to accomplish.

Dionna is a volunteer, as are many of the team members for Operation Snow Leopard. She’s happy about that. “I put my life on hold, all of us did. Some lost their jobs or had to pass on taking jobs. I passed on gigs myself.”

Nouruzi praised Dionna’s commitment to the cause and her selflessness. “Sarah stopped her professional life to give a new life for those who were living in danger of being humiliated, harassed and killed by a terrorist group,” she wrote in an email correspondence. “She decided to be a human.”

As for the sacrifices that such work requires, Dionna herself has no regrets.

“It’s like I joined the military again. I feel like that again. I feel like the film, the dance, the music, all of that was like … I don’t want to say it was like a consolation prize, but it was kinda like a consolation prize. That’s not what I had envisioned myself doing growing up. That just ended up being something that I just really enjoyed. But now going back into doing this and helping out with Afghanistan … I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all by halting my life. I feel like I’m gaining.”